The debate's Kissinger flap: Who was right?

Just like the campaign commercials, there were elements of truth in Friday night's presidential debate (which is always a good thing). And both campaigns had their communications staff sending emails throughout the evening clarifying what their bosses said and how the other guy was completely wrong.

The McCain communications staff got the evening started with an email sent out at 8:32 p.m. It was like tailgating with the McCains. The email let us know that spokesman Brian Rogers would be the point man for fact checking and responses. It also boasted that another staffer would be hurling "insults" from the McCain website.

There's no doubt that the wasteland known as "The Spin Room" offers nothing but hot air, but for a presidential campaign to showcase that they're paying someone to offer "assorted insults" provides a clear indicator to the health of US campaigning.

First strike

Regardless, the first clarification came just 13 minutes into the debate with the McCain team stating, "Despite Barack Obama's claims, John McCain has a strong record of promoting reform and oversight of Wall Street."

Obama spokesman Nick Shapiro got into the act 10 minutes later offering a "debate reality check" on the topic of deregulation. Shapiro said, "McCain has been in favor of more deregulation for 26 years and his VP nominee couldn't name a specific example of reform he had fought for."

No one can dispute the second part of Shapiro's email unless Sarah Palin has gotten back to Katie Couric.


One of the sharper exchanges of the evening - in an evening full of butter knives - came when the two disputed what former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger's position was on meeting with rogue leaders.

McCain criticized Obama for saying in earlier debates that he would meet with with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and Cuban President Raúl Castro "without precondition."

He said in the past US presidents such as Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon would not meet with certain leaders until sufficient groundwork had been done by lower-level personnel.

"Look, I’ll sit down with anybody, but there’s got to be pre-conditions," McCain said. "Those pre-conditions would apply that we wouldn’t legitimize with a face to face meeting, a person like Ahmadinejad. Now, Senator Obama said, without preconditions."

Obama didn't dispute McCain's characterization, stating, "I reserve the right, as president of the United States to meet with anybody at a time and place of my choosing if I think it’s going to keep America safe."

What Would Kissinger Do?

The two got into an argument over what Kissinger, a McCain adviser, had said the prior week at a conference in Washington, D.C.

"Senator McCain mentioned Henry Kissinger, who’s one of his advisers, who, along with five recent secretaries of state, just said that we should meet with Iran — guess what — without precondition," Obama said. "This is one of your own advisers."

McCain disputed that.

"Dr. Kissinger did not say that he would approve of face-to- face meetings between the president of the United States and the president — and Ahmadinejad. He did not say that," McCain stated.

Obama concurred. Then McCain began, as some pundits have called it, lecturing the Democratic nominee.

"What Senator Obama doesn’t seem to understand is that if without precondition you sit down across the table from someone who has called Israel a 'stinking corpse' and wants to destroy that country and wipe it off the map, you legitimize those comments," he said.

Not what I said

Obama protested, stating that McCain was mischaracterizing his position.

"Senator McCain keeps on using this example that suddenly the president would just meet with somebody without doing any preparation, without having low-level talks," he said. "Nobody’s been talking about that, and Senator McCain knows it."

Mix it up

Then, the two, much to moderator Jim Lehrer's seeming enjoyment, finally engaged each other.

MCCAIN: So let me get this right. We sit down with Ahmadinejad, and he says, “We’re going to wipe Israel off the face of the Earth,” and we say, “No, you’re not”? Oh, please.

OBAMA: No, let me tell…

MCCAIN: By the way, my friend, Dr. Kissinger, who’s been my friend for 35 years, would be interested to hear this conversation and Senator Obama’s depiction of his — of his positions on the issue. I’ve known him for 35 years.

OBAMA: We will take a look.

MCCAIN: And I guarantee you he would not — he would not say that presidential top level.

OBAMA: Nobody’s talking about that.

MCCAIN: Of course, he encourages and other people encourage contacts, and negotiations, and all other things. We do that all the time.

LEHRER: We’re going to go to a new…

MCCAIN: And Senator Obama is parsing words when he says precondition means preparation.

OBAMA: I am not parsing words.

MCCAIN: He’s parsing words, my friends.

OBAMA: I’m using the same words that your advisers use.

After the fire

It didn't end there of course. The Obama camp sent out a helpful email at 10:25 p.m., referencing an ABC News article stating that Kissinger "told an audience in Washington, DC ... that the US should negotiate with Iran 'without preconditions' and that the next President should begin such negotiations at a high level."

The McCain team responded, as you knew they would, with a comment from Dr. Kissinger himself through the Weekly Standard's Stephen Hayes.

"Henry Kissinger believes Barack Obama misstated his views on diplomacy with US adversaries and is not happy about being mischaracterized," the email reads. "He says, 'Senator McCain is right. I would not recommend the next president of the United States engage in talks with Iran at the Presidential level. My views on this issue are entirely compatible with the views of my friend Senator John McCain."

More to come

All clear now? If you think this exchange was interesting, just wait and see if Joe Biden and Sarah Palin broach the subject on Thursday night.

Here's betting this will be the most watched debate in the history of presidential politics.

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