'I Paid for This Microphone': The Reagan v. Bush Debate Controversy

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NBC News
Tom Snyder/Garrick Utley/Don Oliver
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After the Nashua Telegraph offers to host a debate between Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, the Federal Election Commission says that the newspaper- sponsored debate would violate election rules. Reagan subsequently arranges to fund the event with his own campaign money, and invites the other candidates, embarrassing Bush.



"'I Paid for This Microphone': The Reagan v. Bush Debate Controversy." Garrick Utley, Don Oliver, correspondent. NBC News. NBCUniversal Media. 23 Feb. 1980. NBC Learn. Web. 17 January 2015.


Utley, G. (Reporter), & Oliver, D. (Reporter), & Snyder, T. (Anchor). (1980, February 23). 'I Paid for This Microphone': The Reagan v. Bush Debate Controversy. [Television series episode]. NBC News. Retrieved from https://archives.nbclearn.com/portal/site/k-12/browse/?cuecard=4511


"'I Paid for This Microphone': The Reagan v. Bush Debate Controversy" NBC News, New York, NY: NBC Universal, 02/23/1980. Accessed Sat Jan 17 2015 from NBC Learn: https://archives.nbclearn.com/portal/site/k-12/browse/?cuecard=4511


'I Paid for This Microphone': The Reagan v. Bush Debate Controversy

TOM SNYDER, anchor:

It is only three days now before the voters go to the polls in the crucial New Hampshire primary. And the Republican candidates seem to have gone, well let's just say things did not go tonight the way they were supposed to go. We had thought earlier this evening that we'd be covering a serious showdown debate between the leading Republican contenders: Ronald Reagan and George Bush. There slugging it out toe to toe in debate, head to head if you will, but then things got out of hand. Here to report live from New Hampshire are NBC News correspondents Don Oliver and Garrick Utley, Garrick, what happened up there tonight?

GARRICK UTLEY, reporting:

Well Tom, it was something that we haven’t seen so far during this political season. Tonight there was personal animosity, there was personal bitterness. In Nashua New Hampshire the gloves finally came off and this is what happened tonight there. The people of Nashua came early for the debate looking perhaps for some political excitement but not expecting the drama which was developing inside. About 2,000 people filled the high school gymnasium. At one end of the hall were three tables for George Bush, Ronald Reagan and the moderator.

But since this afternoon Reagan had been trying to enlarge the debate to include all the Republican candidates. The sponsor of the encounter, the Nashua Telegraph, refused. Reagan claimed that since he had paid for the confrontation he had the right to change the ground rules. A quarter hour after the debate was supposed to start George Bush entered the hall. A moment later a very angry Ronald Reagan strode onto the platform. He didn’t come alone. He brought four other candidates with him onto the stage. They are Congressman John Anderson, Senators Howard Baker and Robert Dole, and Congressman Philip Crane. John Connally was out of the state. The publisher of the Nashua paper did the formal introduction.

Nashua Telegraph Publisher: It is my privilege to welcome you tonight to the 1980 Nashua Telegraph Presidential Forum. On the right is former governor of California Ronald Reagan; on the left is the former ambassador of the UN, George Bush. In the rear are four other candidates who have not been invited by the Nashua Telegraph. At the end of the debate we will allow these four people to make statements.

UTLEY: Then the moderator Jon Breen, an editor of the paper, set the rules for the debate. When Ronald Reagan tried to protest Breen attempted to have his microphone cut off.

Mr. JON BREEN, Moderator: Would the sound man please turn Mr. Reagan’s mic off for the moment?

Mr. RONALD REAGAN, GOP Presidential Candidate: Is this on? Mr. Green…If you ask me… I am paying for this microphone, Mr. Green!

UTLEY: With that, Reagan accompanied the four candidates to the edge of the stage as they left, a gesture of protest against the newspaper and George Bush. When they left the gymnasium the candidates were not happy.

Senator HOWARD BAKER, Tennessee: If George Bush is the nominee, I'll support him. But I do not plan on George Bush being the nominee. He is not wearing that crown very well. And I’m going to do what I can do to make sure that doesn’t happen. Because I think too much of the Republican Party to see it go down the tube.

Senator ROBERT DOLE, Kansas: I’ll never understand George Bush’s attitude as long as I live. They stiffed us, that’s what they did, they stiffed us. They said you can’t come and they had the help of the paper. No doubt in my mind Bush and the Nashua Telegraph are in this together.

Congressman JOHN ANDERSON, Illinois: Mr. Bush is trying to contrive the image, apparently, that he and only one other candidate are worthy of consideration and are front-runners in this race and nobody else matters.

UTLEY: Meanwhile there was finally a debate between Reagan and Bush. There wasn’t much disagreement between the two and total agreement on one point.

Mr. BREEN: Do you feel that Ronald Reagan is too old to be president of the United States?

Mr. GEORGE BUSH, GOP Presidential Candidate: No, I don’t.

Mr. BREEN: Governor Reagan?

Mr. REAGAN: I agree with George Bush.

UTLEY: Well, Tom, it was a wild night here in New Hampshire.

SNYDER: When Governor Reagan said 'I agree with George Bush', that was the only nice thing that was said about him by any of the Republican contenders up there tonight.

UTLEY: I think we have to address the question, Tom and Don, what actually happened there tonight? Was George Bush the man who was responsible for this, or where the other candidates playing along with Reagan in an effort to hurt Bush? Are they all out to get Bush?

DON OLIVER, reporting:

I don’t think it started out that way but I think Bush kind of got caught in the middle of something that he thought he could take advantage of, and it turned out that he couldn’t. Reagan had put himself in the position of paying for a debate between himself and Bush. He later began to realize that if he did this that the other candidates were going to look on him as the man who was shutting them out of the debate because he was paying for it. So then he decided he had to invite them all or he would look like he was a divisive force in the party. At the same time, Bush thought he would sit back and reap the benefits of this. And as you saw on the screen he did not. The interesting thing is that this debate, when it finally came off there were no major between the two, but as far as I could tell there was no real clear advantage. But I think on the television screens around Massachusetts and New Hampshire, those television stations that reach this area, you are going to see what we just saw and that is that Ronald Reagan emerged the champion of the four other men who are in the race.

UTLEY: And yet the fact is, Don, that neither man really was very eager to debate. Bush, late last week when it turned out that the Federal Elections Commission was not initially going to allow the debate to be funded by the newspaper in Nashua, Bush seemed sort of happy that there wouldn’t be a debate. He felt things were going well enough for him here in New Hampshire. And of course this afternoon, we must remember, it was just this afternoon about 2 o'clock that Reagan called the paper trying to change the ground rules. So this great idea that the candidates want to debate face to face, they want to really tackle the issues and have a mano a mano confrontation, really isn’t true in this political season.

SNYDER: Where was this debate seen tonight? It certainly wasn’t carried on national television. How many people do we think saw this in New Hampshire or up in New England?

UTLEY: Very few, it wasn’t carried on television at all, only on one small radio station here in the southern portion of the state. So the people themselves are not going to really be able to judge what happened in New Hampshire. They are going to have to depend on news reports, on television and newspapers, and as Don indicated what the candidates are going to be saying in person and in their television advertisements in the two days that remain before the primary.

SNYDER: But what we are going to see on the news reports tomorrow, Don and Garrick, is probably the brouhaha that took place with Governor Reagan standing up and demanding the microphone because he'd paid for it. We won’t hear much of the debate at all.

OLIVER: Exactly. We’re not going to get any clear idea of what the differences are between the two men. In fact, there won’t be any differences at all except as they reflect how they view their own position within the Republican Party. We’re not going to know anymore, the people of New Hampshire aren’t going to know anymore, tomorrow about how George Bush feels on the issues, as opposed to how Ronald Reagan feels on the issues than they knew before the debate took place tonight.

SNYDER: Gentlemen, thank you very much. Don Oliver and Garrick Utley, our NBC News correspondents, standing by in New Hampshire for what was supposed to have been a debate but turned out to be kind of a political argument tonight.