Presidential Debate, October 11, 1992 Primary Source eText

Primary Source

Presidential candidates (from left) H. Ross Perot, Bill Clinton, and President George H.W. Bush meet in St. Louis, Missouri, for their first debate in October 1992. AP/WIDE WORLD PHOTOS. REPRODUCED BY PERMISSION. Presidential candidates (from left) H. Ross Perot, Bill Clinton, and President George H.W. Bush meet in St. Louis, Missouri, for their first debate in October 1992. AP/WIDE WORLD PHOTOS. REPRODUCED BY PERMISSION. Published by Gale Cengage AP/WIDE WORLD PHOTOS. REPRODUCED BY PERMISSION.


By: George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and H. Ross Perot

Date: October 11, 1992

Source: Presidential Debate, October 11, 1992 . Transcripts from The Commission on Presidential Debates. Available online at ; website home page (accessed April 4, 2003).

About the Authors: George H.W. Bush (1924–) was born in Milton, Massachusetts. On his eighteenth birthday, Bush enlisted in the U.S. Navy. During World War II (1939–1945), he flew fifty-eight combat missions and received the Distinguished Flying Cross. After graduating from Yale University in 1948, Bush entered the Texas oil business. Later, he served as the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, a U.S. envoy to China, director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), and vice president and president of the United States (served 1989–1993).

Bill Clinton (1946–) was born in Hope, Arkansas. After earning an international relations degree from Georgetown University, Clinton received a Yale law degree. In 1978, at the age of thirty-two, Clinton was elected governor of Arkansas. After losing his reelection bid, he was elected again and maintained the position until becoming president (served 1993–2001) of the United States. He was the first Democrat since Franklin D. Roosevelt (served 1933–1945) to be reelected to a second presidential term.

H. Ross Perot (1930–) was born in Texarkana, Texas, the son of a cotton broker and horse dealer. In 1953, after graduating from the United States Naval Academy, Perot spent four years on active duty. Later, Perot, with no specialized computer or electronic training, founded Electronic Data Systems (EDS). In 1984, he sold EDS to General Motors, receiving $1 billion in cash and 5.5 million shares in new stock, while remaining the president of the company.


Following the nation's impressive victory in the Gulf War in 1991, conventional wisdom held that President George H.W. Bush (served 1989–1993) would win reelection easily. Bush's poll approval rating reached an unprecedented 91 percent in February 1991. However, by late spring 1992, his approval rating had plummeted to fifty percent, and it fell to 34 percent that summer. There were a variety of reasons for Bush's political free fall. First, he reneged on his 1988 campaign promise not to raise taxes. Faced with a $220 billion budget deficit, Bush compromised with the Democrat-controlled Congress to trade a tax hike for budget cuts. Consequently, Bush alienated many fiscal conservatives, who, in turn, sat out the 1992 election. Bush also undercut his support with Republican and Independent women when his Supreme Court nominee, Clarence Thomas, was accused of sexual harassment. The biggest reason for Bush's declining poll numbers, however, was the poor economy. During his presidency, the gross national product, the total annual output of the nation's goods and services, increased at .07 percent annually, the slowest rate of growth since the Great Depression. As a result, Bush had the lowest poll ratings of any first term president in his fourth year in office since Herbert Hoover in 1932.

Due to Bush's high approval ratings early in 1991, few big-name Democrats were eager to challenge the president. The political void allowed Bill Clinton (served 1993–2001), governor of Arkansas, to enter the presidential campaign. Heading into the New Hampshire primary, Clinton was the frontrunner. Allegations of past womanizing, however, dogged his bid for the presidency. With two politically damaged candidates, H. Ross Perot announced on the Larry King Live cable talk show in February 1992 that he would run for president as an independent, if voters in all fifty states put him on the ballot. Initially, Perot was a formidable contender, because, as a billionaire, he was willing to bankroll the campaign himself. Perot also captured the public's attention with his blunt, humorous personality. He had a knack of simplifying complicated economic issues for the American people. Bush and Clinton both viewed Perot as a serious contender.

In June 1992, Perot's poll ratings reached 39 percent—compared to 31 percent for Bush and 25 percent for Clinton. Fearing a potential political crisis, a Senate committee began hearings to change the Electoral College by constitutional amendment. Oddly enough, Perot unexpectedly bowed out of the race at the height of his popularity. A couple of months later, however, he reentered the race. Perot's indecision ultimately cost him any chance of winning the presidency. Yet, he remained a dangerous challenger because he could draw just enough support from Bush or Clinton to propel the eventual winner into the White House. On October 1, Perot relaunched his presidential efforts with a thirty-three-day campaign that included his participation in three nationwide televised debates.


After the first debate, polling data showed that Perot had been the clear winner. Although he stood little chance of winning, he forced Bush and Clinton to publicly confront the spiraling national debt, commercial trade imbalance, and other important economic issues during the debate. Later that fall, Perot hosted two thirty-minute nationally televised infomercials. Sitting at a desk, armed with a silver pointer and numerous pie charts, he gave the nation a crash course on economics. On November 3, 1992, Bill Clinton received more than twice the number

of Electoral College votes than George H.W. Bush, but defeated Bush by less than six percentage points (43.3 percent to 37.7 percent, respectively). Perot received 19.1 percent, faring better than any third party presidential candidate since Teddy Roosevelt in 1912. Though Perot drew support from both candidates, he drew more votes from Bush, perhaps costing Bush reelection.

Primary Source: Presidential Debate, October 11, 1992 [excerpt]

SYNOPSIS: The first presidential debate was October 11, 1992, in St. Louis, Missouri. The Bush campaign had insisted that Perot be included in the contest, reasoning that Clinton would best the president in a one-on-one showdown. From the beginning of the debate, Perot put his opponents on the defensive with his folksy, quirky demeanor and ability to speak honestly about the nation's economic ills.

Perot: I think the principal that separates me is that 5 and a half million people came together on their own and put me on the ballot. I was not put on the ballot by either of the 2 parties; I was not put on the ballot by any PAC money, by any foreign lobbyist money, by any special interest money. This is a movement that came from the people. This is the way the framers of the Constitution intended our government to be, a government that comes from the people. Over time we have developed a government that comes at the people, that comes from the top down, where the people are more or less treated as objects to be programmed during the campaign with commercials and media events and fear messages and personal attacks and things of that nature. The thing that separates my candidacy and makes it unique is that this came from millions of people in 50 states all over this country who wanted a candidate that worked and belonged to nobody but them. I go into this race as their servant, and I belong to them. So this comes from the people.

Lehrer: Governor Clinton, a one minute response.

Clinton: The most important distinction in this campaign is that I represent real hope for change, a departure from trickle-down economics, a departure from tax and spend economics, to invest in growth. But before I can do that, I must challenge the American people to change, and they must decide. Tonight I have to say to the President: Mr. Bush, for 12 years you've had it your way. You've had your chance and it didn't work. It's time to change. I want to bring that change to the American people. But we must all decide first we have the courage to change for hope and a better tomorrow.

Lehrer: President Bush, one minute response, sir.

President Bush: Well, I think one thing that distinguishes is experience. I think we've dramatically changed the world. I'll talk about that a little bit later, but the changes are mind-boggling for world peace. Kids go to bed at night without the same fear of nuclear war. And change for change sake isn't enough. We saw that message in the late 70s when heard a lot about change, and what happened, that misery index went right through the roof. But my economic program is the kind of change we want. And the way we're going to get it done is we're going to have a brand new Congress. A lot of them are thrown out because of all the scandals. I'll sit down with them, Democrats and Republicans alike, and work for my agenda for American renewal, which represents real change. But I'd say, if you had to separate out, I think it's experience at this level.

Lehrer: Governor Clinton, how do you respond to the President on the—you have two minutes—on the question of experience? He says that is what distinguishes him from the other two of you.

Clinton: I believe experience counts, but it's not everything. Values, judgment, and the record that I have amassed in my state also should count for something. I've worked hard to create good jobs and to educate people. My state now ranks first in the country in job growth this year, fourth in income growth, fourth in reduction of poverty, third in overall economic performance, according to a major news magazine. That's because we believe in investing in education and in jobs. And we have to change in this country. You know, my wife, Hillary, gave me a book about a year ago in which the author defined insanity as just doing the same old thing over and over again and expecting a different result. We have got to have the courage to change. Experience is important, yes. I've gotten a lot of good experience in dealing with ordinary people over the last year and month. I've touched more people's lives and seen more heartbreak and hope, more pain and more promise, than anybody else who's run for president this year. I think the American people deserve better than they're getting. We have gone from first to thirteenth in the world in the last twelve years, since Mr. Bush and Mr. Reagan have been in. Personal income has dropped while people have worked harder. In the last four years, there have been twice as many bankruptcies as new jobs created. We need a new approach. The same old experience is not relevant. We're living in a new world after the Cold War, and what works in this new world is not trickle down, not government for the benefit of the privileged few, not tax and spend, but a commitment to invest in American jobs and American education, controlling American health care costs, and bringing the American people together. That is what works. And you can have the right kind of experience and the wrong kind of experience. Mine is rooted in the real lives of real people, and it will bring real results if we have the courage to change.

Lehrer: President Bush, one minute to respond.

Bush: I just thought of another—another big difference here between me. I don't believe Mr. Perot feels this way, but I know Governor Clinton did because I want to accurately quote him. He thinks, I think he said, that the country is coming apart at the seams. Now, I know that the only way he can win is to make everybody believe the economy's worse than it is. But this country is not coming apart at the seams, for heaven's sakes. We're the United States of America. In spite of the economic problems, we're the most respected economy around the world. Many would trade for it. We've been caught up in a global slowdown. We can do much, much better, but we ought not try to convince the American people that America is a country that's coming apart at the seams. I would hate to be running for president and think that the only way I could win would be to convince everybody how horrible things are. Yes, there are big problems, and yes, people are hurting. But I believe that this Agenda for American renewal I have is the answer to do it, and I believe we can get it done now, whereas we didn't in the past, because you're going to have a whole brand new bunch of people in the Congress that are going to have to listen to the same American people I'm listening to.

Lehrer: Mr. Perot, a minute response, sir.

Perot: Well, they've got a point. I don't have any experience in running up a $4 trillion debt. (Laughter.) I don't have any experience in grid-lock government where nobody takes responsibility for anything and everybody blames everybody else. I don't have any experience in creating the worst public school system in the industrialized world, but I do have a lot of experience in getting things done. So, if we're at a point in history where we want to stop talking about it and do it, I've got a lot of experience in figuring out how to solve problems, making the solutions work, and then moving on to the next one. I've got a lot of experience in not taking 10 years to solve a 10-minute problem. So, if it's time for action, I think I have experience that counts. If there's more time for gridlock and talk and finger pointing, I'm the wrong man.

Lehrer: President Bush, the question goes to you. you have two minutes. And the question is this: Are there important issues of character separating you from these other two men?

Bush: I think the American people should be the judge of that. I think character is a very important question. I said something the other day where I was accused of being like Joe McCarthy because I questioned—I put it this way; I think it's wrong to demonstrate against your own country or organize demonstrations against your own country in foreign soil. I just think it's wrong. I—well, maybe they say, "Well, it was a youthful indiscretion." I was 19 or 20 flying off an aircraft carrier and that shaped me to be Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces and I'm sorry, but demonstrating—it's not a question of patriotism. It's a question of character and judgment. They get on me—Bill's gotten on me about, "read my lips." When I make a mistake I'll admit it. But he has made—not admitted a mistake and I just find it impossible to understand how an American can demonstrate against his own country in a foreign land—organizing demonstrations against it when young men are held prisoner in Hanoi or kids out of the ghetto were drafted. Some say, "well, you're a little old fashioned." Maybe I am, but I just don't think that's right. Now, whether it's character or judgment—whatever it is—I have a big difference here on this issue and so we'll just have to see how it plays out. But I—I couldn't do that. And I don't think most Americans could do that. And they all say, "Well, it was a long time ago." Well, let's admit it then. Say, "I made a terrible mistake." How could you be Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces and have some kid say—when you have to make a tough decision, as I did in Panama or Kuwait and then have some kid jump up and say, "Well, I'm not going to go. The Commander-in-Chief was organizing demonstrations halfway around the world during another era. So there are differences but that's about the main area where I think we have a difference. I don't know about—we'll talk about that a little with Ross here in a bit.

Lehrer: Mr. Perot, you have one minute.

Perot: I think the American people will make their own decisions on character and at a time when we have work to do and we need action I think they need to clearly understand the backgrounds of each person. I think the press can play a huge roll in making sure that the backgrounds are clearly presented in an objective way. Then, make a decision. Certainly anyone in the White House should have the character to be there. But, I think it's very important to measure when and where things occurred. Did they occur when you were a young person, in your formative years? Or did they occur while you were a senior official in the federal government? If you make it as a young man, time passes. So I would say just, you know, look at all three of us. Decide who you think will do the job. Pick that person in November because believe me, as I've said before, "The party's over and it's time for the clean-up crew." And we do have to have change and people who never take responsibility for anything when it happens on their watch and people who are in charge—

Lehrer: Your time is up.

Perot: The time is up. (Laughter).

Lehrer: The time is up.

Perot: More later.

Further Resources


Follett, Ken. On Wings of Eagles. New York: W. Morrow, 1983

Levin, Doron P. Irreconcilable Differences: Ross Perot versus General Motors. Boston: Little, Brown, 1989.

Posner, Gerald L. Citizen Perot: His Life and Times. New York: Random House, 1996.


Rothenberg, Stuart, "Where Have You Gone, Ross Perot?" Roll Call, April 12, 2001.

Stone, Walter J. "It's Perot Stupid! The Legacy of the 1992 Perot Movement in the Majority-Party System, 1994-2000." Political Science & Politics, March 2001, 49–59.


"Directory of U.S. Political Parties." Politics1. Available online at; website home page (accessed April 4, 2003). "Reform Party Official Website." Reform Party of the United

States of America. Available online at (accessed April 4, 2003).