We all dive in, "Let it shine! Let it shine! Let it shiiiiiine!" Our staff is used to such spontaneous outbursts from the singing Liebermans — the Von Trapps of American politics, as Becca says. Becca later told me she thinks Matt picked the song on purpose to subliminally remind me to "turn the light back on" in my eyes, the light he feared had been dimmed with exhaustion. Matt doesn't remember why he picked the song; it just came to him. And what a joyous, uplifting spiritual it is. If I wasn't pumped for the debate before, I am now!
The instant I walked out onto the stage and sat down, whatever anxiety I had floated away. Why? Probably because the expectation was over. I had entered the ring and knew I had trained hard and was ready. And I knew what I wanted to do.
I had worked hard that week to prepare an opening statement that would set a tone for the debate. After thanking our hosts and my family, I said, "My eighty-five-year-old mom gave me some good advice about the debate earlier today. She said, 'Sweetheart,' as she is prone to call me, 'remember, be positive and know that I will love you no matter what your opponent says about you.' Mom, as always, that was both reassuring and wise. I am going to be positive tonight. I'm not going to indulge in negative personal attacks. I'm going to talk about the issues that I know matter to the people of this country: education, health care, retirement security, and moral values. I'm going to describe the plan that Al Gore and I have for keeping America's prosperity going and making sure that it benefits more of America's families, particularly the hardworking middle-class families who have not yet fully benefited from the good times we've had. And Bernie, I'm going to explain tonight how we're going to do all this and remain fiscally responsible."
It was Dick Cheney's turn, and he surprised me, because one of the first things out of his mouth was, "And I, too, want to avoid any personal attacks." Where the presidential debate two days before had been acrimonious and noticeably tense, Cheney and I had both decided to strike a more civil tone. My opponent had shelved his dour and sometimes sour demeanor; he was reasonable in manner, conversational, even modestly comic. Newsweek later reported that on the morning of the debate, the Bush campaign pollster Matthew Dowd had briefed the Bush team and had urged Cheney to back off on any attacks at the debate. But what about Gore's "credibility"? Cheney had asked. "Couldn't I bring it up?"
"I wouldn't go personal," Dowd had replied. In other words, the Republican pollsters had found the same public mood that our pollsters had, which encouraged Cheney and me to have a good, substantive, civilized debate.
Toward the end, Bernie Shaw raised a pointed question that touched on the charges Republicans had leveled against me. He asked Cheney: "Have you noticed a contradiction or hypocritical shift by your opponent on positions and issues since he was nominated?"
To this, Cheney almost pleaded, "Boy, we've been trying to keep this on a high plane, Bernie."
So there were no fireworks. Every once in a while, there was a snappy comeback. When you are preparing for a national debate, your staff puts together a notebook of one-liners. I know Gore had one, as did Bush and Cheney. I had one, but most of the lines felt inappropriate to this debate, and the one time I used one, Cheney came back with a funnier line.