EVERY four years they debate the debates -- the presidential and vice presidential debates. Where will they be held? Who will moderate? Who will the panelists be? Who sits where? Who goes first?
Baltimore's last presidential debate was preceded by all of these weighty questions. And all of them eventually were answered. The debate came off on schedule Sept. 21, 1980. It might have been a historic evening in the Monumental City but for one thing: Jimmy Carter was a no-show.
So Ronald Reagan debated independent candidate John Anderson -- remember him? -- in a cavernous room on the ground floor of the Convention Center. The debaters were situated on a stage in front of a light blue backdrop. Six journalists and a moderator (Bill Moyers) sat in front of them at a long table with their backs to the audience of some 2,500. CBS and NBC had full camera crews present; ABC decided to show a movie.
The two candidates initially were asked what politically unpopular measures they would recommend to deal with inflation. Mr. Anderson cited the spending cuts he had already outlined in his economic program.
Mr. Reagan (who won the election), replied: "I believe the only unpopular measures that would be applied would be unpopular with government."
After that, the Great Debate had nowhere to go but up. Mr. Anderson referred to his opponent as "governor." Mr. Reagan kept calling Mr. Anderson "John."
And so it droned on: abortion (Mr. Reagan wanted a constitutional amendment to ban it, Mr. Anderson was against that); defense spending; energy; the plight of the cities. No fires were lit. No memorable lines emerged.
In closing, Mr. Reagan was his Hollywood self: "I believe together can build this world over again." Mr. Anderson, as an independent and outsider, used much of his closing statement to appeal for funds.
A six-member panel scoring the match for the Associated Press called Mr. Anderson the winner. The candidate, they noted, had ready command of evidence and an ability to call forth information quickly. He spoke confidently and directed his answers to the questions.
In Fells Point, a reporter took a survey at a tavern.
"I'll watch when they get a candidate up there I can vote for,"
said one patron.
And so Baltimore's Great Debate was hardly worth writing home about.