20 Years Ago: The Al Gore / Ross Perot NAFTA Debate

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on November 8, 2013 – 12:02 am

Twenty years ago tomorrow—on November 9, 1993—Vice President Al Gore and billionaire businessman Ross Perot appeared on CNN’s Larry King Live to debate the merits of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). More than 16 million people tuned in to the high-profile debate.

NAFTA was a controversial piece of legislation that created a trade bloc among three nations—the U.S., Canada, and Mexico. It narrowly passed the U.S. House one week after this debate and went into force less than two months later.

Whatever your views on NAFTA, one thing is clear: Al Gore crushed Ross Perot in the debate.

If you remember this debate at all, it’s probably for Mr. Perot’s demeanor. Time Magazine described the difference between the two men thusly: “A calm, suave Gore literally towered over a snide and snarling Perot.” The Independent declared that “by any objective yardstick, a cool, slightly condescending Mr Gore won out over a petulant Mr Perot, by a mile.”

To get a sense of Perot’s temperament, watch about a minute of this clip, beginning at the 2:25 mark. Keep in mind that he was speaking to a sitting U.S. vice president at the time.

Mr. Gore won this debate for one reason: He found his opponent’s Achilles’ heel—Perot’s temper—and exploited it at every opportunity. Perot, unaccustomed to being interrupted and hectored, predictably bristled, snapping at Gore to “give me your whole mind” and asking him “Are you going to listen? Work on it.”

According to journalist James Fallows, writing in The Atlantic:

“There was genius, or at least cunning, in the decision to prepare Gore to push Perot’s flaw to the breaking point — to stake the debate on Gore’s ability to make Perot lose his temper. ‘If you’re dealing with a hothead, you make him mad,’ Greg Simon, a longtime Gore aide who was then Gore’s domestic-policy adviser and part of the team that prepared him for the debate, told me. ‘You’ve got a crazy man, you make him show it.’”

“Their starting point was that Perot was like an overbearing grandfather. ‘He’ll be fine as long as everybody sits there and listens to him,’ Simon said. ‘But if you start interrupting him, he’ll lose it.’ Perot, a graduate of the Naval Academy, was extremely proud of his image as a self-sacrificing patriot. Several aides reasoned that if Gore could find a way to gibe at or raise doubts about that reputation, Perot would be unable to contain himself. Perot had virtually no experience with being treated disrespectfully.”

How ineffective was Perot’s peevishness? Before the debate, only 34 percent of Americans supported NAFTA. Immediately following the debate, support surged to 57 percent.

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  • About Mr. Media Training

    The Mr. Media Training Blog offers daily tips to help readers become better media spokespersons and public speakers. It also examines how well (or poorly) public figures are communicating through the media.

    Brad Phillips is the Founder and Managing Editor of the Mr. Media Training Blog. He is the president of Phillips Media Relations, a media and presentation training firm with offices in NYC and DC.

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    Before founding Phillips Media Relations in 2004, Brad worked as a journalist with ABC's Nightline with Ted Koppel and CNN's Reliable Sources and The Capital Gang.

    Brad tweets at @MrMediaTraining.

    Christina Mozaffari is the Senior Writer for the Mr. Media Training Blog. She is the Washington, D.C. vice president for Phillips Media Relations.

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    Before joining Phillips Media Relations in 2011, Christina worked as a journalist with NBC News, where she produced stories for MSNBC's Hardball with Chris Matthews, NBC Nightly News, and The Today Show.

    Christina tweets at @PMRChristina.

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