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Thousands Protest Presidential Debate Lockout

  • The SPOTLIGHT was on the scene in Boston and witnessed the heavy-handed police-state tactics used to keep Pat Buchanan and Ralph Nader out of the establishment-approved presidential debates.
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By Christopher Bollyn

Immediately following the presidential debate in Boston on Oct. 3, The SPOTLIGHT asked Gov. George W. Bush, "Do you think the American people were well served by the exclusion of third-party candidates from the debate?"

Bush was reluctant to discuss the exclusion of Pat Buchanan saying, "The commission sets the rules."

Vice President Al Gore escaped before The SPOTLIGHT could confront him.

The SPOTLIGHT asked many politicians and debate organizers the same question with the follow-up, "Do you think the debates would have been better if Buchanan and Nader had been included?"

When The SPOTLIGHT asked Caro line Kennedy Schlossberg, a member of the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD) and daughter of the late President John F. Kennedy, she turned on her heel.

PBS news host Jim Lehrer was debate moderator. He said the decision to exclude Buchanan is "way above my pay grade."

Collectively, the demeanor of the assembled politicos was that of naughty children covering up a bad prank. Not an individual, of the dozens interviewed by The SPOTLIGHT, would admit that they disagreed with the exclusion of third-party candidates from the debates.


While the cameras, and the eyes of the nation, were fixed on the first presidential debate between Bush and Gore, thousands of protesters outside the debate hall at the University of Massachusetts condemned the exclusion of third-party candidates who failed to meet an arbitrary polling requirement for entrance to the debates.

Restrained by hundreds of police dressed in riot gear and surveyed by three helicopters with floodlights, the crowd chanted, "Open the debates!" and "Let them speak!"

Although the protesters came from different political positions, a common grievance was the stranglehold of the Democrats and Republicans -- and the role of big money -- on the presidential debates.

Polls have shown that 64 percent of the American people want to see Nader and Pat Buchanan in the debates.


Pat Buchanan, presidential candidate of the Reform Party, who was barred from the debate said, "We will look back on this as a national disgrace.

"The other two parties are engaged in a conspiracy, basically, to deny me access to the debate that's going to decide the election and the presidency of the United States," Buchanan told Meet the Press on October 1.

Nader condemned the exclusion of third-party candidates and issues from the presidential debates calling it an "affront to democracy" and challenged Gore's "phony populism" calling him a "political coward, political knave, and po litical charlatan."

When Nader, who had a ticket to enter the hall, approached the door, John Be zeris, a representative of the CPD told him, "It's already been decided that whether or not you have a ticket, you are not welcome in the debate."

"I didn't expect they would be so crude and so stupid," Nader said after being turned away by three armed state troopers. "This is the kind of creeping tyranny that has turned away so many voters from the electoral process.

"Imagine that, a private company [CPD] -- controlled by the two major parties and funded by beer, tobacco, auto and other corporation -- misused police power to exclude me from the premises, even though I had a ticket to enter issued by the debate commission themselves."

The CPD claims to be "a non-partisan, non-profit educational institution" (501 C-3) which was created in 1987 ostensibly for the purpose of organizing the presidential debates and educating the public on the issues.

Although federal law has prohibited corporations from contributing to candidates since 1907, the CPD enjoys an ex ception to the law allowing it to receive unlimited donations from labor unions, foundations and corporations.

The CPD, which Nader calls "a creature of the two parties," is co-chaired by Frank Fahrenkopf, former head of the Republican party and lobbyist for the Ne vada gambling industry, and Paul Kirk, former head of the Democratic Party.

Together Fahrenkopf and Kirk set the criteria, which a candidate must meet, for entrance to the debates.

In January 1999 they decided on an "arbitrary and unrealistic" threshold that a candidate must show 15 percent in five national polls in order to participate. It is this criterion that has blocked every legitimate third-party candidate from being in this year's debates.

When The SPOTLIGHT suggested to Fahrenkopf that it was unfair to use polls done by the same networks who black-out coverage of third-party candidates, he said, "That's bulls -- t."

Jesse Jackson, Jr. (D-Ill.) proposed legislation to lower the polling requirement to 5 percent. At the debates, his father, Jesse Jackson, Sr., told The SPOTLIGHT that he supported the ban claiming his main interest was defeating Bush.