Clinton, Dole to debate in series on TV

Friday, March 7, 2003

NEW YORK -- Former President Bill Clinton and his 1996 election opponent Bob Dole will debate the wisdom of a tax cut in wartime as "60 Minutes" revives its old "Point-Counterpoint" feature for them on Sunday.

The two retired politicians have agreed to 10 mini-debates over the next few months. CBS News would not say what they will be paid.

Clinton, who has been offered several television opportunities since leaving office, said the newsmagazine's reputation as a serious show appealed to him. He said he's watched cable TV political shows that degenerate into "screaming matches" with tired ideas.

"There may be a market for people who want light instead of heat," the former president said Thursday.

Asked who won after taping their first segment on Thursday morning, Clinton replied, "He did."

"I got a 'B,"' said Dole, the former Senate majority leader. "He got a 'B-minus."'

After reading stories about Clinton considering and ultimately rejecting the idea of a syndicated talk show last summer, "60 Minutes" executive producer Don Hewitt called Clinton's lawyer with the idea of bringing back "Point-Counterpoint." Hewitt and Clinton met in the ex-president's Harlem office in August, but it took several months for Clinton to decide and to work out the details, Hewitt said.

Dole was recommended as an opponent, and Hewitt said the former GOP leader "took about three seconds to say yes."

Some fights, some fun

"I respect Senator Dole," Clinton said. "We've had a lot of fun together. We've had some fights, but we've also had some fun."

Hewitt said the two will take turns picking a topic and writing a 45-second script, which will be e-mailed to the other. The response would also be 45 seconds. The first debater would then get 15 seconds to rebut, and his opponent would get 15 more seconds for the last word. Each politician will write his own script. Hewitt said that so far, they have responded well to editing suggestions.

The segment will be called "Clinton/Dole" one week and "Dole/Clinton" the next.

"It is going to be provocative but not mean or nasty. That would be a first for us," quipped Dole, whose sharp tongue occasionally got him in trouble during his political career.

Although the first segment will touch on the potential conflict with Iraq, Clinton said he and Dole need to be careful what they say given their former positions. He said they want to be supportive of the armed forces.

Their wives -- Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., and Sen. Elizabeth Dole, R-N.C. -- were "both terrified" about what they may say, Clinton said.

"They should be," Dole added.

Clinton said, "All I can do is make a blanket plea that neither of them be held responsible for what we say."

"60 Minutes" arguably played a key role in saving Clinton's first campaign for the presidency. He and his wife sat for an interview in January 1992 when allegations of an extramarital affair with Gennifer Flowers threatened his candidacy; he later went on to win the Democratic nomination.

The "Point-Counterpoint" segment was a prominent feature of "60 Minutes" during the 1970s, handled most famously by Shana Alexander and James J. Kilpatrick until 1979. It was briefly and unsuccessfully revived in spring 1996.

To many young TV viewers, it's known better through a "Saturday Night Live" parody featuring Jane Curtin and Dan Aykroyd ("Jane, you ignorant slut..."), endlessly replayed on cable television.

The revival could be a big shot in the arm for "60 Minutes." Television's first newsmagazine is still its most popular, but it has lost some 10 million viewers over the last decade and has one of the oldest audiences on TV. CBS recently announced that Hewitt would step down as executive producer next year.

"I think there is enough of a hunger, maybe not among 4-year-olds, but among 30, 35 or 40-year-olds, that it will improve the viewership," Hewitt said.

Neither the politicians nor CBS would comment on whether their relationship would extend beyond the 10-appearance commitment. But if the segment proves to be a hit, CBS will almost certainly try for more.

"We told Don Hewitt that if he wants to fire us, between the two of us we have enough enemies that it will make 75 percent of the American public happy," Clinton said.

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