Janet Brown, the head of the Commission on Presidential Debates, said yesterday on CNN that presidential debate moderators should not engage in fact checking candidates because, she suggested, there are no such things as facts.
“I’m not sure, what is a big fact, what’s a little fact,” said Brown. “If you and I have different sources of information, does your source about the unemployment rate agree with my source?”
History shows that this nihilistic stance on the part of debate organizers is clearly understood, appreciated and utilized by Republicans.
Just before the 1984 election, Peter Teeley, the press secretary for then-Vice President George H.W. Bush, told the New York Times, ”You can say anything you want during a debate and 80 million people hear it.” If the media documents afterwards that what the candidate said was false, said Teely, “So what? … Maybe 200 people read it or 2,000 or 20,000.”
Teeley was speaking just after the second debate between Ronald Reagan, then the incumbent president, and Walter Mondale, his Democratic opponent, during which Reagan had repeatedly demonstrated his Trump-like relationship to reality.
For instance, when asked about a manual prepared by the CIA for the Nicaraguan contras that included a section on political assassination, Reagan suggested that CIA superiors had edited out the objectionable information when they become aware of it. They hadn’t.
Reagan also claimed that only 12 copies had been printed with the original section on assassination intact. The real number, as the White House had to admit soon afterward, was 3,000.
Demonstrating that Teeley was right, no one noticed or cared, and Reagan went on to win in a landslide soon afterward. Reagan’s false debate statements have now been completely forgotten.
Moreover, Teeley’s admission that politicians feel free to lie during debates because there are no consequences has itself been largely forgotten — showing that you can also say “anything you want” to the New York Times, even the ugly truth.