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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October 2012: The Five Worst Video Media Disasters

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on November 1, 2012 – 5:30 am

It’s little surprise that October was quite a month for media disasters.

Weird things happen in the final weeks of election season, and this month was no different. From the memorable presidential debates to a politician discussing rape to a California primary fight that almost turned violent, October was a month to remember.

Here, without further ado, are the five worst video media disasters of October 2012!

5. Al Gore Blames Altitude for Obama’s Bad Debate Performance

Democrats were left scratching their heads after President Obama’s dreadful first presidential debate in Denver. What caused his lackluster performance, they wondered? Was he tired after four years in office? Distracted due to the debate night occurring on his 20th wedding anniversary? Did he just have an overall disrespect for the value of debates themselves?

Whatever the reason, no one had a more outlandish excuse for him than former Vice President Al Gore, who suggested that Denver’s altitude was to blame. My favorite part of this clip? That his sycophantic co-hosts gave his idea some credence.


4. Two Democratic Opponents Almost Come to Blows

A California House race nearly became violent as two Democrats locked in a primary battle—Brad Sherman and Howard Berman—almost came to blows. It got so heated, their exchange had to be broken up by a nearby police officer.

The Jewish Journal reported that, “The inciting incident came after Berman, for the second time in the debate, took credit for authoring the DREAM Act.”


3. Mitt Romney’s Libya Moment and His “Binders Full of Women”

Mitt Romney had two buzz-worthy moments during the presidential debates.

The first came in the second debate, when—with menacingly arched eyebrows—he denied that President Obama had called the attack on the U.S. embassy in Benghazi an “act of terror” the day after the attack (in fact, he did use the term “act of terror” in a statement on Libya the next day).

Although Mr. Romney may have been right on his larger point, he was wrong on the specific point, allowing the President (with the help of moderator Candy Crowley) to win the exchange.

Mr. Romney’s second memorable moment occurred during the same debate, when he explained his commitment to gender equality by sharing an anecdote about looking through “binders full of women” as Massachusetts governor to consider them for job openings.

Sure, that phrase was inelegant. But the more important question many women were asking afterward was why, after so many years in business, Mr. Romney knew so few qualified women to consider for those positions in the first place.


2. Senate Candidate Steps on Rape Landmine

During a debate earlier this month, Indiana Republican Senate candidate Richard Mourdock worded his position on abortion in the case of rape as follows:

“Life is a gift from God, and I think even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that is something that God intended to happen.”


Critics pounced, accusing Mourdock of saying he believes that God intends rape to happen. Mourdock bitterly complained that his words had been taken out of context; he and his supporters explained that he didn’t mean that God intends for rape to occur, but rather that the life itself is a gift from God.

Based on my reading of his comments, I’m willing to give Mourdock the benefit of the doubt. But his imprecise word choice left him open to attack. And it’s not like he didn’t have ample warning to prepare a less ambiguous statement on this topic—any Republican running on a similar platform this election cycle should have improved upon Todd Akin’s awful example.


1. President Obama’s First Debate

First, let’s get this out of the way: this was not a “gaffe” in the traditional definition of a gaffe. But in terms of sheer political impact, President Obama’s performance during the first presidential debate is impossible to ignore. As a result of his lackluster performance, Governor Romney immediately surged in the national polls and closed the gap in several vital swing states.

If President Obama loses next Tuesday, historians will cite this debate as a major reason why. If he wins, it will be a lot closer than it otherwise could have been.

The video below is an edited compilation of some of Mr. Obama’s many “uhhhs.” It’s emblematic of how hesitant and unfocused he was throughout the entire debate.


Bonus #1: Mitt Romney Surrogate John Sununu’s Racist Statement

If you’re white, you’re almost certainly voting for Mitt Romney because he’s white, too. Right?

That was the logic behind a statement made by former New Hampshire Governor (and current Mitt Romney surrogate) John Sununu. After General Colin Powell—who served as George W. Bush’s Secretary of State—announced his support for President Obama, Sununu shamefully reduced Mr. Powell to merely being a black man who casts his vote on racial identity alone instead of being a person whose votes are based on actual thought.


Bonus #2: Joe Walsh: Women Don’t Die Due to Pregnancy Anymore

Did you know that women don’t die during childbirth anymore?

That, according to Congressman Joe Walsh (R-IL), who says “life of the mother” exceptions to abortion laws are no longer necessary since medical technology makes such cases non-existent.

If only someone could share that news with American’s uncooperative women, who occasionally lose their lives due to complications of pregnancy.

If you like my blog, please stay in touch on Facebook at www.Facebook.com/MrMediaTraining and on Twitter at www.Twitter.com/MrMediaTraining. Thanks for reading!

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Presidential Debates: 8 Memorable Moments

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on October 2, 2012 – 6:04 am

The first presidential debate between President Obama and Governor Romney is scheduled for tomorrow night, which leads to a question: Do presidential debates really matter?

Over the past few weeks, I’ve read numerous analyses that suggest there is scant evidence to conclude that races are won or lost based on debates alone. But what is indisputable is that presidential debates often create long-lasting images and indelible moments.

The eight clips below represent some of the most memorable debate moments from the television era, dating from 1960 – 2008.

John F. Kennedy vs. Richard Nixon: Makeup Matters (1960)

Few can recall what Richard Nixon said in the first televised presidential debate with John F. Kennedy in 1960, but many people remember how he looked. Mr. Nixon, who refused makeup, appeared pale and sweaty. Mr. Kennedy, who wore makeup, looked poised and comfortable.

Americans who heard the debate on the radio concluded that Nixon had won; those who watched it on television sided with Kennedy.


Gerald Ford: There Is No Soviet Domination of Eastern Europe (1976)

President Gerald Ford, running for his first full term, asserted during his second debate against Governor Jimmy Carter that, “there is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe.” He was wrong on the facts. When offered the chance to correct his statement by an incredulous moderator, he held his ground.

Within days, Ford aides insisted that he was only trying to avoid acknowledging the legitimacy of Soviet domination. But his comment seemed clear at the time, and the gaffe likely contributed to his loss.


Ronald Reagan: Are You Better Off Than You Were Four Years Ago? (1980)

Polls showed a close race when Governor Ronald Reagan met incumbent President Jimmy Carter in 1980. With just one rhetorical question, Mr. Reagan helped ensure his victory days later.


Ronald Reagan: I Won’t Exploit My Opponent’s Youth and Inexperience (1984)

When running for re-election in 1984, President Reagan was dogged with rumors of his diminishing mental capacity; some critics wondered if he was too old and tired for the job. Mr. Reagan put those rumors almost entirely to rest with one of his trademark quips; even opponent Walter Mondale seemed to recognize it was all over in that moment.


Michael Dukakis: The Rape and Murder Question (1988)

When CNN moderator Bernard Shaw asked Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis if he would favor the death penalty if his wife was raped and murdered, Dukakis delivered an emotionless and almost inhuman answer that earned him reams of negative press.

The correct answer would have been something closer to: “Bernard, if that happened to my wife, I’d want to kill the person who did it myself. But that’s not how we should be making national policy…”


Bill Clinton vs. George H.W. Bush: Do You Understand? (1992)

When a woman asked President Bush how the national debt affected him personally, he first checked his watch, then delivered a disconnected and unconvincing answer.

When it was Bill Clinton’s turn to answer her question, he walked toward her, asked her how it had affected her, and delivered a personal answer in which he said, “When people lose their jobs, there’s a good chance I know them by their names.”

The contrast between the two men rarely appeared starker.


Al Gore: The Exasperated Sighs (2000)

During the first presidential debate, Vice President Al Gore couldn’t contain his exasperation with Governor George W. Bush. During several points in the debate, Gore condescendingly sighed loudly at his opponent’s statements.

Those sighs became the lead media narrative after the debate; they were even more devastating when the networks edited the sighs together. As a result of the media criticism, Gore was gun shy during the second debate. He never found the right tone.


John McCain: That One (2008)

John McCain’s campaign was floundering when he met Senator Barack Obama for their second debate. Out of seeming frustration, Senator McCain referred to Mr. Obama as “that one.”

In a year that produced few memorable debate moments, Mr. McCain’s dismissive comment stood in marked contrast to Mr. Obama’s “cool” persona and generated more than a few “what did he just call him?” reactions.

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Today’s Blown Supreme Court Call On CNN And Fox News

Written by Brad Phillips on June 28, 2012 – 1:48 pm

Earlier today, both CNN and the Fox News Channel misreported the Supreme Court’s decision regarding President Obama’s health care law.

Screengrab by Jason Keath

I hammered CNN on Twitter for its mistake. Well-known investor Henry Blodget took me to task, arguing that “News orgs will always make mistakes…I’m sure they’re ripshit about it. Someone will probably get fired. But it is what it is. And it’s now old news.”

With all due respect, I believe that he couldn’t be more wrong. The issue isn’t hammering a news organization for a single mistake, but for failing to learn from high-profile mistakes the network—and other media organizations—have made in the past.

CNN, for example, did a lot of journalistic introspection after retracting its infamous “Operation Tailwind” story in 1998. But that didn’t stop the network from incorrectly calling Florida for Al Gore two years later (disclosure: I worked for CNN at the time, but had no influence over that call)

And last year, CNN was again part of the story when many major news organizations—most notably National Public Radio—incorrectly reported that Rep. Gabrielle Giffords had died. This appeared on NPR’s blog:

“2:24 p.m. ET: CNN reports it too has confirmed that Giffords was killed.”

They’re not alone. In 2004, The New York Post splashed John Kerry’s Vice Presidential choice on its front page: “Dem picks (Dick) Gephardt,” blared the headline. Except he didn’t. John Edwards got the nod.

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Why Mitt Romney’s “Etch A Sketch” Moment Matters

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on March 22, 2012 – 7:15 pm

For the past 36 hours, the airwaves have been filled with constant re-airings of the latest gaffe from the Romney campaign – and many pundits are declaring this the worst misstep yet.

The moment occurred when one of Mitt Romney’s top advisors, Eric Fehrnstrom, was interviewed on CNN Wednesday morning. Here’s the exchange:

Question: John Fugelsang: “It’s fair to say that John McCain was considerably a more moderate candidate than the ones that Governor Romney faces now. Is there a concern that the pressure from Santorum and Gingrich might force the governor to tack so far to the right it would hurt him with moderate voters in the general election?”

Answer Eric Fehrstrom, Senior Romney Adviser: “Well, I think you hit a reset button for the fall campaign. Everything changes. It’s almost like an Etch a Sketch. You can kind of shake it up and we start all over again.”


I’d argue that many of the previous Romney “gaffes” were taken out of context by the media. Not this one. Mr. Fehrstrom was asked a direct question about Romney’s ideological positioning, and his answer seemed to clearly suggest that Mr. Romney would indeed move to the center.

Given that Mr. Romney’s professed commitment to conservative values is already viewed with deep suspicion by many conservative voters, few gaffes could hurt him more. His own top aide suggested that he would be ideologically malleable, confirming for many voters what they already suspected: that he is a shape-shifter who will say whatever it takes to win. Fellow Republicans Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich quickly seized on the gaffe, bringing Etch a Sketches to public events.

This image, created by Zuma Press, Newscom, and TPM, will likely haunt Mr. Romney for months

The imagery of an “Etch a Sketch” will follow Mr. Romney for the rest of his campaign. Will it doom his candidacy? I wouldn’t go that far. But when candidates reinforce the worst fears about themselves with a gaffe that turns them into a caricature, it’s near-impossible to reverse the narrative.

Just how potent is the Etch a Sketch image? Consider these four losing candidates for office who became their own worst enemies:

In 1988, Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis confirmed fears about his strength as a leader when this image of him riding in a tank was released during the campaign. He lost a 17-point lead with three months to go and was defeated by George H.W. Bush.

In 1992, President George H.W. Bush was viewed by many Americans as “out of touch” when running for a second term, due to his own personal wealth and his ineffectual handling of the economy. So when he went to a grocery store and appeared to express amazement at a bar code scanner that had been out for years, it confirmed the “out of touch” meme. (Bush aides insist that he was actually not amazed by the scanner, saying he was indeed aware of the technology. Nonetheless, the image took hold.)

In 2000, Vice President Al Gore was tagged with the image of being a serial exaggerator. He confirmed that perception when he seemed to suggest that he had created the Internet:

In 2004, Democratic nominee John Kerry was widely seen as a “flip flopper.” So when he explained a vote on a wartime funding bill by proclaiming that, "I actually did vote for the $87 billion before I voted against it," he gave his Republican opponents a perfect opening to attack his changing positions.

All four of the above examples lasted mere moments, but each came to symbolize an entire candidacy. Mitt Romney’s “Etch a Sketch” moment now joins those historical moments, and Mr. Fehrnstrom’s gaffe will likely be remembered for decades to come.

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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.

    Brad Phillips

    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.

    Brad Phillips

    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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