The one thing you prayed for and lusted after in a political campaign in the old days was to catch your opponent in a lie – because a lie (caught on videotape) was as close to sure death as there was in politics.
Back in 1984 I thought we had a pretty good chance of catching Governor Hunt in a fib during a debate – it wasn’t that Hunt was a congenial teller of tales but he did have a way of holding his finger to the wind and shifting his positions with the wind. But the first time I suggested to Jesse that we should hold a mock debate he said, What for? I debate on the Senate floor all the time.
We finally had one practice debate that started at 11:00 o’clock – ten minutes later my phone rang and Jesse growled, I’m going to hand this phone to David – you to tell him to cut out the cheap shots. David was the researcher who was playing Governor Hunt.
I asked, What cheap shots? and Jesse snapped, I’ve cast ten thousand votes. How am I supposed to remember one vote I cast seven years ago?
David walked into my office the next morning carrying a video tape – and I watched the practice debate: He asked, Senator, in 1977 you voted for a bill that cut school lunches for young children. How on earth did that make sense? and Jesse turned beet-red, pointed his finger straight at the TV cameraman and snapped, Turn off that camera.
The video screen went blank – and I asked David, Is that it? and he nodded, He left after that.
The August night Jesse walked into the first debate in Raleigh a reporter asked, What did you do to prepare for the debate? and Jesse said, I got a haircut, and it was the Lord’s own truth.
When Jesse asked Governor Hunt, You’ve said you support Reagan’s tax cuts and you’ve said you oppose Reagan’s tax cuts – you’ve been on both sides. So, where do you stand? – I thought Jim Hunt was going to come across the table and throttle Jesse: He leaned forward staring a hole in Jesse and snapped, I haven’t changed my position on that issue or any other issues and you know it – and I’ve had enough of your intentionally distorting my record. Next, without taking a breath, Hunt lit into Jesse for voting to raise tobacco taxes.
When the camera swung back to Jesse he frowned, looked down, pursed his lips – all he needed to say was, Governor, it’s all on videotape: You told a TV reporter here in Raleigh you supported Reagan’s tax cuts and then you voted against the same tax cuts at the National Governor’s Association – but Jesse hadn’t done his homework.
That night, flying back to Washington, when Jesse called from the airplane I started to tell him how badly he’d lost the debate but before I could say a word he said: I took an old-fashioned whipping tonight. I’m ashamed to go home to Dot. All I said was, Well, there’s no point in gilding the lily. But we’ll get ‘em next time.
Looking back, the unusual fact isn’t how Jesse lost that debate to Hunt – it’s that, thirty years later, when a politician tells a whopper people shrug and say, He’s my man – and I’m for him. And that’s it. It’s like a devil rewired our chemistry. There’s no reckoning. But it wasn’t always that way.