The chairman of the Committee on Presidential Debates weighs in.
Never in the history of presidential debates has there been more attention or more controversy than this year’s Clinton Trump showdown. Nearly a hundred million people tuned in to see the combatants face off, prompting pundits to dub the debates the Super Bowl of the presidential race. On Nantucket, hundreds watched the historic debates on the big screen in the Dreamland Theater. Yet of all the people who watched, few had a better view than summer resident Frank Fahrenkopf, the chairman of the Committee on Presidential Debates. Fahrenkopf has been in charge of the presidential debates since 1987, giving him a front row seat to eight presidential cycles. N Magazine spoke to Fahrenkopf over the course of the three debates to get his take on the election and its place in American history.
N MAGAZINE: How did you first enter the political arena?
FAHRENKOPF: When I graduated from the University of California Berkeley Law School and came back to Reno, which was my home since I was nine years old, it was a different time in American politics. Back then, in the late sixties and seventies, there were two strong organizations in both parties: The Young Republicans and The Young Democrats. I became the chairman of the Reno Young Republicans and then the Nevada Young Republicans. I then became the chairman of the Nevada Republican Party for eight years, and then in 1982 — after the Republican party suffered some real bad losses in Congress — President Reagan asked me to come back and become the chairman of the Republican National Committee.
N MAGAZINE: What was Reagan like?
FAHRENKOPF: He was an amazing individual. When he walked into a room, you felt it. He had a remarkable sense of humor. He was a leader. Everyone talks about how great a speaker he was. He had a remarkable warmth and charm about him, but he could also be tough as nails.
N MAGAZINE: Do you have any funny anecdotes about the time you spent with President Reagan?
FAHRENKOPF: We were on Air Force One on a campaign trip, and we landed in Las Vegas at 12:30 in the morning. The president said, “Frank, why don’t you ride with me up front.” So I get in the limo with the president, and it’s 12:30 in the morning. Even [that late at night,] there were people along the road with their kids waving flags. We came to a corner where there was a strip joint. Suddenly, we look, and all the girls are out standing on top of cars, and as the limousine approached, they reached back and took off their tops and started twirling them and yelling, “We love you Mr. President!” The president turned to me and said, “Frank, did you see that? Now that’s what I call a real Las Vegas welcome.”
N MAGAZINE: Have you met any other president comparable to Reagan?
FAHRENKOPF: Bill Clinton was very, very good. When you met Bill Clinton, he looked you right in the eye. He wasn’t looking to the next person in line. He had a rare ability. It was a special thing about Clinton. I haven’t seen that warmth or ability that [Clinton and Reagan] had, each in different ways, in any of the other different presidents since.
N MAGAZINE: Do you think there’s something inherently flawed in the political process that yielded this presidential cycle’s candidates?
FAHRENKOPF: The polls clearly show that the American people are dissatisfied. They’re dissatisfied with Washington, with government in general, with the president. They’ve lost faith in corporations. They’ve lost faith in banks. The American people are unhappy, and that’s why I think not only Donald Trump did so well in the process, but also Bernie Sanders. There are people looking for something else. It’s a very unusual, unusual time.
N MAGAZINE: The debates themselves had some unusual moments, particularly in the town hall forum when Trump tried to have Clinton’s past accusers sit in his family’s VIP box. Can you tell us how that unfolded behind the scenes?
FAHRENKOPF: I was supposed to go on stage in ten to fifteen minutes, and I’m standing with the president of the university when one of my people came up to me and said, “Do you know about the press conference?” And I said, “What press conference?” He told me that apparently Trump had four women who had accused Bill Clinton of impropriety over time, and the word was that he’s going to try and put them in the family box. I said, “Absolutely not. That breaks the rules.” I went to the holding room where all the Trump people were. When I told them what I had heard, they were shocked. They had no knowledge of it. I said, “Look I have to go up on stage, but I have to tell you right here and now that if he tries to put them in the family box that’s a violation of the rules, and I’ll have security stop them.” So I go on to the stage. I’m in the middle of my remarks, and I don’t know what the hell is going on, until I see Rudy Giuliani leading the four women to regular seats, which was fine. Of course, Trump complained that they had the right to put them in the family box, but they just didn’t.
N MAGAZINE: Trump
also accused your
commission of sabotaging the first debate, right?
FAHRENKOPF: There was a controversy after the Hofstra debate. Those who watched on televi sion didn’t hear it, but those who were in the hall noticed that there was an audio problem with Trump. His voice would sound high and low, high and low. Afterwards, he accused the commission of sabotaging. What happened was Trump was an hour late for the walk-through. We had about seven minutes with him; there just wasn’t enough time to get it done. But we thought we had it done right. Then one of Trump’s people went up to the podium and touched the microphone, and that’s what threw it off. It had nothing to do with us. He blamed his poor showing on it, but in my experience the side that loses the debate usually blames the moderator or the commission. They can’t take the blame themselves.
N MAGAZINE: Is it difficult to find neutral or fair and balanced moderators?
FAHRENKOPF: It’s the hardest thing we do. For the last six months we’ve been monitoring people who have been on television, seeing what they do. We want diversity. The networks don’t do a very good job, when you really look at it, with Hispanics and African Americans and Asians. They just really, really don’t. So we have to find diversity. I thought we did the best job we’ve ever done, this time. We had an African American, an Asian, two women and the first publically open gay person with Anderson Cooper. Of course, once the red light goes on, who knows what happens.
N MAGAZINE: What about the commission itself? How do you keep it unbiased?
FAHRENKOPF: We’re totally independent. It was created in 1987, when Paul Kirk was the chairman of the Democratic Party, and I was chairman of the Republican Party. Paul and I shook hands at that time and said whenever we work on matters that have to do with the debates, he would never wear a DNC hat. I would never wear an RNC hat. We would always wear a USA hat. We would be down the middle. And I think by the fact that we’re still here after all these years shows that we have done that.
N MAGAZINE: You’ve worked so hard to maintain the integrity of the debates; do you think this presidential cycle has undermined them in anyway?
FAHRENKOPF: I actually think just the opposite. I have been buried in calls and emails from Republicans, Democrats and Independents saying, “Thank the lord for the commission and the integrity of the commission.” I think these debates have helped the commission and given us the credibility that hopefully we deserve.
N MAGAZINE: How do you think history is going to look back on these debates?
FAHRENKOPF: They’ll certainly go down in history for how many people watched and what happened on the stage. There’s never been so much interest. The Nielsen rating on the first debate was 84 million. But that didn’t count CSPAN, which brought it right under 100 million people. That does not count people who were in group viewing parties or the people that streamed it [online.] So, well over 100 million people saw that debate. That validated the importance of the debate and bodes well for the commission in the future.
N MAGAZINE: How do you foresee the
Republican Party mending the frac
tures after this election?
FAHRENKOPF: I’ve been in the Re publican Party for a long time, and you go through cycles. I don’t think we’re talking about the death of the Republican Party. The Republican Party has some problems, and after the election I’m sure there’s going to be new leadership. Both parties will have to get back to my favorite word: comity. Comity has left this town. And that’s what the American people want: They want comity between their parties and their elected leaders.