EDITOR'S NOTE: Charleston native Mike McCurry, former White House press secretary under President Bill Clinton, has kept busy this fall as co-chair of the Commission on Presidential Debates. He helped arrange two of the three most-watched debates in history.
Those watching them on C-SPAN might have seen McCurry urging the audience to turn off their cellphones and to refrain from boos or cheers.
Sixty-two years to the day after he was born at Charleston's Roper Hospital, McCurry returns Thursday to The Citadel to discuss his experiences. He gave a preview to The Post and Courier.
P&C: Was this a difficult year for the commission to do its job given the political climate?
McCurry: “It’s a very contentious election with two candidates that are diametrically opposed on many issues. Picking moderators who could do a very fair and balanced job was difficult. As you know, in the last debate we picked a moderator from FOX television, and that certainly was controversial on the moderate, Democratic side. But I thought Chris Wallace acquitted himself quite well in the debate and arguably got the best reviews of any of the debate moderators.”
P&C: What was your, or the commission’s, biggest frustration?
McCurry: “As I look back on the debates, I’m always struck that there are subjects that never quite make it … We didn’t have a good robust debate about poverty in America or hunger in America. We had some discussion of race relations, but thinking of Charleston and the events that have consumed that city, we probably could have had more around that."
"I think the greatest frustration is that there are so many issues that are important to the future of this country and not all of them get addressed in these debates.”
P&C: Now that the third and final presidential debate is in the books, how was the experience?
McCurry: “All we do is we pick the places and set the times and choose the moderators and design the format. The content of the debate itself is up to the candidates and the moderators we pick. You always hold your breath and hope everything goes well, but these were exceedingly interesting debates."
P&C: Two of this year’s three debates were the most watched ever. Does that make you proud?
McCurry: “That’s exactly what you want. We want these to be very interesting, textured debates that most Americans feel like they really want to watch, even when we’re up against NFL football.”
P&C: What lessons did the commission learn this year and how might that affect future debates?
McCurry: “Let me step back a bit. The fact that we now have almost institutionalized presidential debates, so the American people expect them to happen, is a significant achievement. From the original Kennedy-Nixon televised debate in 1960, we went 16 years before there was another presidential debate. There’s nothing given that the presidential candidates will agree to participate or show up. But now I think we’ve institutionalized these debates. Most Americans expect them to happen.”
P&C: How much of your time did this take up?
McCurry: Compared to four years ago and eight years ago, this was a much more intense engagement. Just the complications and contention in this election required a lot more direct involvement. My full-time day job is that I teach at the Wesley Theological Seminary, so I probably short-changed some of my students. Though the class I’m currently teaching, I got them tickets for the St. Louis debate.”
- Robert Behre