Ted Koppel Recalls 'Nightline' Politics Highlights

ByABC News
November 20, 2005, 11:46 AM

Nov. 20, 2005 — -- For more than 40 years, Ted Koppel has covered everything for ABC News, all the way back to 1964 when he first sharpened his campaign chops covering Barry Goldwater with another cub reporter named Peter Jennings. On Tuesday, Koppel will host his final "Nightline." Before he goes, we asked him to reminisce about his most memorable political interviews. Gary Hart led the list.

Ted Koppel: The Gary Hart adventure, or romantic adventures, becoming a part of the presidential campaign was really the first time that had ever happened. And I remember, in particular, something that Gary Hart said to me during the course of the interview to the effect that he was prepared to answer the question but hoped it would never ever be asked of another candidate again.

Koppel [Sept. 8, 1987]: Did you have an affair with Ms. Rice?

Gary Hart [Sept. 8, 1987]: I don't care what questions are asked tonight or anytime in the future. I'm not going to answer them on any specific incidence. Now, I've been made, forced-- I have been made to make a declaration here that I think is unprecedented in American political history, and I regret it. That question should have never been asked, and I shouldn't have to answer it.

Koppel: It was a terribly awkward question but there was no way of doing that particular interview without asking it because it had become the central issue of his candidacy.

Mike Dukakis, of course, was at the very end of his presidential campaign this [other memorable political interview] was two weeks away from Election Day. He was way behind in the polls. And this was an opportunity to, if not turn things around entirely, at least close the gap. It ended up being a total disaster for the Dukakis campaign.

Koppel [to Dukakis, Oct. 25, 1988]: With all due respect, let me suggest to you I still don't think you get it.

Koppel: I was saying to him, "Governor, you know, here's a chance to get a network audience for one hour in which you are being asked questions," and he kept saying the same things he had been saying in the campaign throughout. I didn't mean it to be rude, but it came out that way. And he missed that opportunity, too.

If Mike Dukakis was not good at responding to difficult questions, Bill Clinton was brilliant at it.

Bill Clinton [Feb. 12, 1992]: I'm going to appear on "Nightline" tonight to discuss all of this in greater detail.

Koppel [Feb. 12, 1992]: All of this is the controversy [was] over Bill Clinton's draft record and this 22-year-old letter obtained by "Nightline," in which Clinton writes [that] no government "should have the power to make its citizens fight and kill and die in a war they oppose."

Koppel: I was concerned that this letter might be a phony. And so, I invited him to come on the program that night. And this is where Bill Clinton showed his stuff.

Clinton [Feb. 12, 1992]: It is the letter of a deeply agitated 23-year-old boy, a young man. At least I was involved in the issues of my time.

Koppel: He is one of the world's best handlers of the media.

I think when historians look back at these last 25 years, one of their observations may well be that politicians, particularly presidential candidates who did well in handling television, were able to overcome what looked like almost fatal setbacks -- whereas those who could not ended up falling, as much as anything else, because of their inability to master the medium.