As we were headed for the third and final presidential debate of this election season Wednesday, many anxious parents were asking, once again, “Should I let my child watch?”
Thankfully, this wasn’t a question when I was an 11-year-old girl. In fact, in October 1984, my parents were so keen on my experiencing the second and final debate between Republican President Ronald Reagan and his Democratic challenger, former Vice President Walter Mondale, they pulled me out of school and flew me to Kansas City, Missouri, where I could watch the historic showdown in person -- an amiable affair, in strong contrast to this year's debates between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.
My dad, Boe Martin, was the Mondale campaign’s lead “advance man” for the event, which is politico speak for "the guy in charge of behind-the-scenes logistics." In Kansas City, I caught only a couple of glimpses of my dad — giving the Secret Service agents a “go” signal as he jumped into a car in Mondale’s motorcade, for example — so I didn’t fully understand his role that day. A couple of weeks ago, at my parents’ home in College Station, Texas, I asked him to help fill me in on that, as well as jog some of my own memories. Here’s a bit of our conversation:
Stephanie Martin Taylor: I don’t remember Reagan’s (now-famous) zinger about Mondale’s “youth and inexperience.” But I do remember the electric feeling in the room and the excitement of being there. What were you up to while I was in the audience?
Boe Martin: Once the motorcade got to the Kansas City Municipal Auditorium, Mondale went with his immediate staff — the speechwriter, the debate coach, etc. — to the dressing room where the makeup person was. Then, it was just a matter of counting down until we got our cue to come down from the dressing room to the stage, to the area behind the curtains.
Stephanie Martin Taylor: So, you walked Walter Mondale to the stage from the dressing room? I didn't know that.
Boe Martin: The lead Secret Service agent and I did. I went to the makeup room to get him. The Secret Service agent was there. The agent stayed on stage, and I went up to watch from the staff room, because if anything had happened [the Secret Service] would have immediately gone into action, and the last thing they wanted was any staff people around when they were doing their job.
Stephanie Martin Taylor: Did you say anything like, “Good luck, Mr. Vice President?”
Boe Martin: Yeah, yeah -- you tried. But he wanted to be alone. So he was over on the side, and he would pace back and forth because he was going through his opening in his mind. So you didn’t interfere with him. But you smiled and gave him a thumbs-up.
Stephanie Martin Taylor: So you watched the debate with other Mondale campaign staffers?
Boe Martin: Yes, and it was interesting to watch the reactions to the various exchanges between the candidates and the moderators. And the remark that Reagan is famous for, the “age and experience” thing, played differently in the hall than it did on television. In the hall there was light laughter, but I don’t think anybody thought it was a particularly telling comment. And in the staff room, people were just saying, “Aww, gee. That’s just Reagan being corny.” It wasn’t until later that the impact of that was known, and it really wasn’t known until the next day. I think the general belief in the staff room was that Mondale had won the debate.
Stephanie Martin Taylor: There was a rally following the debate, wasn't there? I remember stopping by the hotel earlier in the day as you and campaign workers were blowing up balloons.
Boe Martin: Yes, that was at the old Muehlebach Hotel downtown. After the rally, Mondale came straight up to the hotel suite for the night. Then, we locked down that area, and the staff wandered around in the hotel for a while with the press down at the bar. Mainly just trying to figure out what they were saying and writing.
I remember Mrs. Mondale went to bed, and his staff wanted to go to bed or down to the bar, so I went and sat with him for a while in the living room of his suite. So, we sat there and watched the television replays and things.
Stephanie Martin Taylor: Just you two?
Boe Martin: Yeah, it was just the two of us for a while. We did that at the convention, too. And he kind of critiqued himself. You know, he said, “I should have been more forceful here,” or, “I thought I got my point across.” And he was pretty fair to Reagan. He thought that Reagan was much better.
Stephanie Martin Taylor: Are there any other memories that stand out?
Boe Martin: One thing I left out. On the afternoon before the debate, I went back to the Civic Center with another campaign staffer. We went back for one last walk-through, just the two of us.
Suddenly, I saw Secret Service agents coming in from the other side of the stage. And here comes President Reagan walking in. He’s looking around and they’re pointing things out to him, and he’s nodding. But he was one of these guys who was never off stage or off message. And he looked at us and saw the two of us just standing there, staring at him. We obviously weren’t with his group -- he could spot that by the way we were dressed (Republicans always wore suits and ties). His curiosity got the best of him.
Before we knew it, he was walking over, and he sticks out his hand and says, “I’m Ron Reagan!"
We introduce ourselves, and he says, “What are you boys doing here?”
And we said, “Well, we’re with Walter Mondale.”
And he said, “Fritz! (that was Mondale's nickname) He’s a good guy!”
Then, Reagan slapped us on the back and went on his way. (laughs)
Reagan was the most personable politician I'd ever seen. When you got up close to him, you could figure out real quickly why he had a certain charm that captured people. And that was real.