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President Bill Clinton and former Sen. Bob Dole take part in a debate at the University of San Diego on Oct. 16, 1996. / Image courtesy of C-SPAN

A fumbled answer about whether cigarettes are addictive. Mayor Mo’s sister at the microphone. And a mention — clearly without the express written permission of the local Chamber of Commerce— of San Diego’s cross-border sewage problem. Plus: plenty of missing viewers and a not-entirely-missing Ross Perot.

San Diego played host to a town-hall-style presidential debate on Oct. 16, 1996, just months after we hosted the Republican National Convention. The showdown between Bill Clinton and Bob Dole on the campus of the University of San Diego is a time capsule into a previous generation’s preoccupations. And it’s a reminder that politics are always a bit goofy.

In honor of tonight’s vice-presidential debate, here’s a look at a few memorable moments from an evening when the nation’s TV screens turned to our fair city:

Is Tobacco Addictive? Beats Bob Dole

In one of the 1996 presidential campaign’s weirdest tangents, Republican nominee Bob Dole became ensnarled in controversy over his refusal to confirm that cigarettes are addictive. He wanted the feds to stay out of regulating cigarettes, a stance that opened him up for attack since he got a lot of money from the tobacco industry. When challenged on “The Today Show,” he declared “there’s a mixed view among scientists and doctors whether it’s addictive or not,” sounding a lot like a modern-day climate change skeptic. He added that he thought Surgeon General C. Everett Koop, a tobacco critic, had been brainwashed by the “liberal media.”

At the debate, Dole refused to budge when challenged by an audience member who described himself as a 30-year ex-smoker: “Are they addictive? Maybe — they probably are addictive. I don’t know. I’m not a doctor. You shouldn’t smoke.”

It’s not clear if an anti-Dole mascot – walking cigarettes named “Buttman” – made an appearance outside the debate.

Bob Dole: People Respect Bob Dole

Donald Trump isn’t the only politician who likes to refer to himself in the third person. As comedians noticed, Dole did it too. In his opening statement, he promised to offer “a better feel of who Bob Dole is and what he’s all about.” And in a rambling closing statement, he declared that “I’ll just make you one promise, my word is good. Democrats and Republicans said Bob Dole’s word is good. I keep my word.”

The Moderator Who Was Barely There

Remember Chris Wallace engaging in verbal combat with Trump last week? The 1996 debate was a genteel tea party in comparison. The late PBS anchor Jim Lehrer, described recently by Politico columnist Jack Shafer as the “paladin of the milquetoast,” moderated but did nothing more than choose audience members to ask questions. At the time, Shafer wrote in Slate that “there’s a kind of dignity in Lehrer’s plodding reluctance to opine, in his hangdog humility, in his desire to serve as moderator rather than interrogator.”

Ex-Mayor’s Sister Prompts a Sewage Mention

Among the questioners at the town-hall debate was Colleen O’Connor, then a history professor. She’s one of former Mayor Maureen O’Connor’s sisters and a onetime congressional candidate. (A 1974 Reader article about her bid for office praises her looks and quotes her as saying that “in 1964 my sisters and I were Goldwater fanatics.” They clearly drifted.

O’Connor asked the candidates about how to reach out to people who don’t vote. Clinton responded by saying he supported better access to voting and said he hoped to make politics more relevant: “In Washington with more police on the street, in San Diego, clean up the sewage here in San Diego, doubling the border guards here in Southern California … ”

The sewage reference must have mystified viewers at home outside San Diego – not that there were many of them. The 1996 presidential campaign was a bit of a snoozer with Clinton ahead in the polls, and only 36 million people watched the San Diego debate on the major networks. In contrast, last week’s showdown between Trump and Joe Biden attracted at least 73 million viewers.

Debaters Went for Clinton, Unlike Their Neighbors

According to the Los Angeles Times, debate attendees met after the event and polled themselves about whom they supported. Sixty percent supported Clinton. Their neighbors? Not so much. On Election Day, county voters supported Dole over Clinton, but just barely – by a margin of 46 percent to 44 percent. It would take another dozen years before our once-red county would start to become a reliable Democratic stronghold in presidential elections.

Perot Stays Away But Still Manages to Show Up

Independent candidate Ross Perot was a major force in the 1992 election, but he’d lost most of his appeal by the time he ran again in 1996. Unlike four years earlier, officials refused to allow him to take part in any debates.

Still, he appeared on a nationwide 30-minute informercial on NBC before the San Diego debate. Afterward, he showed up for a 45-minute segment on CNN, answering a question about teen pregnancies by suggesting youngsters should get up each day and repeat to themselves: “I am a thinking, reasoning human being, not a rabbit.”

And he still managed to have a very big presence in San Diego despite not being here. Before the debate, vandals cleared part of a Tecolote Canyon Natural Park hillside of vegetation and then carved “PEROT” into the ground using a white powder known as gypsum. The letters could be seen from the nearby USD site of the debate.

According to the Union-Tribune, the letters were each 30 feet tall. “It is an ecological bomb,” a park ranger told the paper. “It is depressing as hell.”

Indeed. With apologies to Perot, not every thinking human being is a reasoning human being.

Randy Dotinga

Randy Dotinga is a freelance contributor to Voice of San Diego. Please contact him directly at

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