Friday’s Classic Clip: George H.W. Bush Vs. Dan Rather (1988)

On January 25, 1988, CBS News Anchor Dan Rather interviewed Vice President George H.W. Bush, who was then running for the presidency. You can learn a good lesson from Mr. Bush’s handling of that unexpected ambush interview.

Mr. Bush was under the impression he would be the subject of a “candidate profile,” but Mr. Rather chose to press Bush on his role in the Iran-Contra scandal instead.

What followed was a remarkably heated interview, one that has rarely been seen in presidential politics since.

Mr. Bush did a good job of pushing back against the storyline, making clear to the audience that Mr. Rather broke his agreement. And since Bush was widely viewed as a “wimp,” his aggressive tone worked to his advantage. Peevish answers rarely work – but they did for Mr. Bush.

Ted Koppel, my former boss and the long-time host of ABC News’ Nightline, has an interesting idea about these types of interviews. He says an audience’s allegiance is to the interviewer, not the person being interviewed – at least at the beginning. But if the viewer perceives the interviewer as being unfair, impolite, or flat out rude, the interviewer will lose his audience and sympathy will shift to the person being interviewed.

Mr. Bush banked on that dynamic, and he got calmer as Rather got more aggressive – exactly the right thing to do in this case.

As a result, Bush was widely seen as the winner of the debate. As The New York Times wrote the next day:

“Mr. Bush seemed to stun the anchor in a reference to a September walkout by Mr. Rather that left CBS broadcasting a blank signal.
‘It’s not fair to judge my career by a rehash on Iran,’ Mr. Bush said. ‘How would you like it if I judged your career by those seven minutes when you walked off the set?’”

That Mr. Rather ended the interview abruptly only led to further accusations of bias and disrespect for the office of the Vice Presidency. (In a strange twist, he was forced out of CBS for running an incorrect story in 2004 about Mr. Bush’s son, George W. Bush.) As for Bush, he defeated Michael Dukakis in an electoral landslide, becoming the nation’s 41st president.

Do you have a favorite “classic clip?”

Related: “You Are Stuck On Stupid” (Friday Classic Clip)