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Statement by Nancy M. Neuman, President, League of Women Voters

Press Release / Last Updated:


Good afternoon. I am Nancy Neuman, president of the League of women Voters. Thank you all for coming on such short notice.

The decision I am here to announce vas not an easy one to reach. It's the right decision. I know that. But not an easy one.

From its start in 1920, the League of Women Voters aimed to inform people about the issues at stake in elections -- to open lines of communication between the electorate and candidates for public office. Beholden to no political party, the League has for 68 years been looked to for the even-keeled information voters need around election time.

Soon after its founding, the League got into the business of bringing candidates and experts together in public to discuss and debate various positions on various issues. These forums were held at the local and state level -- in meeting halls, churches, synagogues, schools, and eventually on the radio. All in all, they turned out to be an excellent means toward the League's end of providing voter information and encouraging people to vote.

In 1976, the League institutionalized debates at the national level by bringing televised, nonpartisan exposure to the presidential candidates' views, positions and priorities. Since then, the American voter has come to expect the League to hold presidential campaigns accountable and to keep the candidates accessible.

1980 and 1984 were election years when television's potential as a campaign tool was fully realized. In both elections, the League stayed in the game, and we got the presidential candidates to agree to debate. The League is proud that we were able to bring Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, John Anderson, Ronald Reagan, Walter Mondale, Robert Dole, George Bush and Geraldine Ferraro before the voters in debates that proved informative even as campaigns were proving more and more image-driven and scripted.

After the 1984 election, the League decided that it would go ahead with plans to sponsor a full series of primary and general-election presidential debates in 1988. In early 1987 -- our site selection process and other planning already under way -- the chairmen of the two political parties announced plans to sponsor their own series of debates. They had set up a commission, they said, and they thanked the League for all we had done and urged us to step aside.

We did not.

Since their press conference that day, the League has argued that an organization set up by the political parties is not an appropriate sponsor of presidential debates. Obviously, the political parties have a huge stake in the outcome of debates and elections. And obviously, a political party will not be party to an event that puts its titular head at risk.

Under partisan sponsorship debates will become just another risk-free stop along the campaign trail.

We forged ahead with our plans for debates in the fall of 1988. We sent proposals to the Bush and Dukakis campaigns in May of this year outlining our recommendations for dates, site, format end other concerns. As the campaign progressed, however, it became clear that the idea of debates sponsored by the political parties had appeal with people who routinely squeeze all risk out of their candidates' appearances. They prefer instead to leave the American public at risk.

After a couple weeks of negotiations around Labor Day, the Bush and Dukakis campaigns announced they had settled most points of contention, including sponsorship. The problem was sponsors were not in on any of it. The negotiations ever these critical events went carried out by the campaigns alone to serve the campaigns' interests.

Throughout the negotiation, I asked that the campaigns open the door to the League. I was certain that the voters' interests would be better served if there were a third party in the room keeping campaign manipulations in check.

The campaigns said no, keeping the voters' interest out of their discussions.

Representatives of the two campaigns came to us on September 28       just two weeks before the debate -- with an agreement that we ware told we had to sign. The agreement had been reached by the campaign chairmen, end it spelled out everything.

Between themselves, the campaigns had determined what the television cameras could take pictures of. They had determined how they would select those who would pose questions to their candidates. They had determined that the press would be relegated to the last two rows of the hall. They had determined that they would pack the hall with their supporters. And they had determined the format. The campaigns' agreement was a closed-door masterpiece.

The agreement was a done deal, they told us. We were supposed to sign it and agree to all of its conditions. If we did not, we were told we would lose the debate.

Obviously, we have been presented with campaign demands before. We have agreed to some, and we have challenged and negotiated others. But never in the long history of the League of Women Voters have two candidates' organizations come to us with such stringent, unyielding and self-serving demands.

In Winston-Salem, they went so far as to insist on reviewing the moderator's opening comments.

It turned out that the League had two choices. We could sign their closed-door agreement and hope the event would rise above their manipulations. Or we could refuse to lend our trusted name to this charade.

The League of Women Voters is announcing today that we have no intention of becoming an accessory to the hoodwinking of the American public. Under these circumstances, the League is withdrawing its sponsorship of the presidential debate scheduled for mid-October in Los Angeles.

On the threshold of a new millennium, this country remains the brightest hope for all who cherish free speech and open debate. Americans deserve to see and hear the men who would be president face each other in a debate on the hard and complex issues critical to our progress into the next century.

In closing, let me issue this challenge: The League of Women Voters is urging you, George Bush, and you, Michael Dukakis, to rise above your handlers and to agree to join us in presenting the fair and full discussion the American public expects of a League of Women Voters debate.

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