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Buckley Producer's Goal: Good Television : New Debate Format Tried in Search for More Action

July 02, 1987|J. MICHAEL KENNEDY | Times Staff Writer

HOUSTON — In the orchestra pit, Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis huddled with his advisers in the corner. Former Arizona Gov. Bruce Babbitt asked about camera angles. Delaware Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. kissed his wife and sent her on her way. "See ya," he said.

They and the other Democratic presidential candidates--Illinois Sen. Paul Simon, Tennessee Sen. Albert Gore Jr., Missouri Rep. Richard A. Gephardt and civil rights leader Jesse Jackson--were getting ready for the first televised debate of the 1988 campaign.

They came looking for recognition, hoping to say something that would set them apart from the rest of the pack.

But Warren Steibel, who moved through the crowd tending to last-minute problems, was looking for something else: good television.

Not Like League Debates

Steibel, the producer of William F. Buckley's "Firing Line" for the past 21 years, didn't want this debate to have any resemblance to the debates put on in the past by the League of Women Voters. He wanted action. He wanted to keep things moving.

So he devised a format that allowed hosts William F. Buckley Jr. and Robert S. Strauss, former chairman of the Democratic Party to ask questions and interact with the candidates, and encouraged the candidates to react to each other. He interspersed film clips of the candidates, a departure from previous formats which limited the show to what happened on the stage.

And he even fed the candidates the opening question--a relative softball about which presidential portraits they would take down in the Cabinet Room.

Steibel said he didn't want the candidates stumbling around in the opening minutes of the show.

"It's not about taxes, abortion, the contras or Reagan," he said. "But it shows the personalities of the candidates."

Not Original Concept

Pulling off good television, though, isn't easy. For one thing, these weren't even the candidates Steibel started out to showcase.

Late last year, the Houston-based Southern Political Consultants, whose stock in trade is conservative political candidates, approached Steibel about a "Firing Line" debate with all the Republican candidates.

Steibel liked the idea and pitched it to public television, which offered a counter-proposal: If Buckley and "Firing Line" did the Republicans, they must also do the Democrats. The Republican debate was set for July 1, the Democrats in September. Then things began to fall apart.

"Everything was going fine," said Steibel. "Then a month and a half ago, (Vice President George) Bush's people said they really didn't promise, that it was not their strategy to do things with the other candidates.

"Then (Sen. Bob) Dole said, 'If Bush isn't coming, then I'm not coming.' Then (Rep. Jack) Kemp said, 'If Dole and Bush aren't coming, then I'm not coming.' So I said forget it."

Democrats Fill Slot

The only alternative was to convince the Democrats to fill the July slot, which they did, and compressed months of work into weeks.

On Tuesday, the day before the debate, Steibel was at the Wortham Center Theater, sitting in what would be Buckley's chair. The candidates' chairs were of blue leather and Steibel and his crew from "Firing Line" spent half an hour just positioning them on stage.

Then it was Wednesday, the day of the debate. Shortly past noon, Houston Mayor Kathy Whitmire pulled the names of the candidates from an Astros baseball cap to decide the seating order. Gephardt was chosen first. Jackson's name was last.

Path to Makeup Room

In the Wortham, the candidates' staff members were escorted on tours, shown where their people would sit, where the dressing rooms were, how to get from the rear entrance to the makeup room.

Over at the Houstonian Hotel, Strauss took the podium for a press conference. He said Buckley had a sore throat and was saving his voice. Strauss indicated that an interesting evening was in store.

Five hours later, the candidates sat down in those blue leather chairs and Steibel hoped that Strauss was right.

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