Two days in a goldfish bowl: what it was like being debate panelist; 'Blizzard of telegrams told us what to ask the candidates were treated like schoolboys'

From the time the Cleveland city government's black limousine picked up my wife and me at the airport, it was clear that covering this story was going to be a bit different.

For the next two days we moved inwhat was for me, as a reporter, a surrealistic world.

A surrealistic world in a fishbowl, as tension built toward the climactic act of this presidential campaign -- a 90-minute, face-to-face, televised debate between Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan.

Pressure mounted -- not only for the two principals poring over their briefing books -- but for the four reporters who would question them.

A blizzard of telegrams flowed in to eachof us as earnest Americans -- espousing every good cause under the sun -- urged us to challenge the men vying to lead this nation through the next four years.

Under the rigid format of the debate, dictated by the Carter and Reagan camps together with the sponsoring League of Women voters (LWV), each of us was allowed only two questions, plus one follow-up -- the same two questions to each candidate.

Eight questions in all (the moderator was allowed none) fashioned as much as possible to force the President and his challenger to expose their conflicting views on burning topics of the day before an estimated audience of 100 million Americans and millions more people overseas.

Panel members, together with top LWV officials, met at dinner in a closed room the night before the debate, to establish priorities and to decide who would ask what.

This was the first time we had met as a group, for each of us had been notified only a day or so before that we had been chosen to participate in the the great event.

Chosen how? I do not know, except that our names, among others, had been approved both by the White House and Reagan staff.

League officials stressed that they did not wish to know what we were going to ask, except to urge us to cover subjects of broadest possible interest to Americans.

The next day, only hours before the debate, we met again in the hotel room of moderator Howard K. Smith to refine our views, but not to share our actual questions. Each panelist alone knew what he or she would ask that evening.

Meanwhile, we became swept up into the event itself, with flash bulbs popping in our faces wherever we moved and television crews clamoring for a few minutes of our time.

Messrs. Carter and Reagan, aspiring to lead the most powerful nation in the world, were given their own ground rules to follow like schoolboys about to compete in a quiz.

Neither man, league officials admonished, would be allowed to take notes out to the platform with him, although hemight make notes during the debate.

Unknown to the vast TV audience, two women of the league -- one on either side of the stage -- sat watching to make sure that neither Carter nor Reagan dipped a hand into his pocket to extract a fact or figure.

Had either man done so, word would have been flashed electronically to the moderator, who would have scolded his charges and told them to put their notes away.

The panelists, all experienced journalists, had a ground rule of their own to follow, normally alien to a reporter. They were not to show, either audibly or visually, either approval or disapproval of anything the candidates said, lest something in a panelist's facial expression color the judgment of viewers across the land.

Nor, under the format, could the panelists challenge the debaters, even when Carter and Reagan, on occasion, proved nimbly adept at evading the heart and meaning of a question.

Was this, then, really a debate? Were the panelists simply patsies, feeding material to the candidates which they could manipulate at will?

One answer is that had the League of Women Voters and the panelists not accepted the strictures required by the Reagan and Carter staffs there would have been no debate at all --no opportunity for voters to see the two men square off face to face.

When the debate was over, when the principals had vanished, when the high and mighty of the politcal world had gone, three of the panelists -- Barbara Walters , Marvin Stone of U.S. News & World Report, and I -- stood together.

A young woman came up to ask breathlessly: "Ms. Walters, may I have your autograph?" The girl disappeared with never a glance at us.

Marvin and I looked at each other. We were back in the real world.

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