Date: Tue, 24 Mar 1998 01:56:27 PST


Don Hewitt on the first televised Presidential Debate, 1960

Don Hewitt (News Producer/Director) discusses the impact of the first Presidential Debate between Nixon and Kennedy in 1960 in this interview excerpt. Hewitt was interviewed for two-and-a-half hours in New York, NY. Hewitt spoke articulately about the beginnings of broadcast journalism, the days of Douglas Edwards with the News, the profound influence of Fred Friendly, Edward R. Murrow, and William Paley; and of course, the creation and success of 60 Minutes. The interview was conducted by Michael Rosen on April 15, 1997

The Kennedy-Nixon presidential debates in 1960 showed the power of television as an instrument of political manipulation. Lighting, make-up, camera angles, and personal charisma all favored Kennedy. But those who had listened to the televised debate on radio favored Nixon. The TV producer who created a president that night was Don Hewitt.

Thirty-two years later another presidential candidate was in trouble after allegations by Gennifer Flowers of adultery. "They came to us because they were in big trouble in New Hampshire," Don Hewitt told a TV crew years later. "They were about to lose right there and they needed some first aid. They needed some bandaging. What they needed was a paramedic. So they came to us and we did it and that's what they wanted to do." According to columnists Germond and Whitcover, Don Hewitt told Bill Clinton just before the interview: "The last time I did something like this, Bill, it was the Kennedy-Nixon debates, and it produced a president. This will produce a president, too."

But this time, not only lighting and camera angles were used to manipulate the image. The editing and the questions provided by Clinton spinmeisters to interviewer Steve Kroft in advance, allowed Clinton to get away with an obvious lie on television. He would later admit under oath that it was a lie. As Hewitt says:

"You know it was strong medicine the way I edited it but he was a very sick candidate. He needed very strong medicine, and I'm not in the business of doctoring candidates but he got up out of a sick bed that night and walked to the nomination and as I said to Mandy, 'You know if I'd edited it your way, you know where you'd be today? You'd still be up in New Hampshire looking for the nomination.' He became the candidate that night."

While it saved the candidate, for some reason Hillary Clinton did not like the way she came across in the segment. Perhaps she was repulsed by the "obediant and forgiving housewife" image Hewitt had created. Hillary Clinton has never forgiven Hewitt, and Hewitt says he has been persona-non-grata in the White House ever since. For someone who thought he had created this President, that was quite a snub.


When the Monica Lewinsky story broke and the Establishment elite consensus in Washington turned on Bill Clinton, Don Hewitt saw his chance. No longer was Clinton the media darling who had to be protected by media propaganda, disinformation and outright lies. Clinton was now seen as a sexual predator, recklessly squandering the advantage given to him by the mainstream media.

The first part of Don Hewitt's revenge came when he aired the out-takes of his carefully edited 1992 Clinton "interview." As if to say, "See, we lied to cover for Bill Clinton." But the punch came with the Kathleen Willey interview last week, characterized by most political pundits as the worst blow yet against the President.

The same deceptive manipulative techniques employed on Clinton's behalf in 1992 were now employed to buttress the credibility of his accuser Kathleen Willey and to damage the credibility of the Clinton camp and their lawyer, Bob Bennett. Lighting, editing, atmosphere, questions asked, and information omitted --all favored Willey.

If Hewitt could be a kingmaker, he could also be a destroyer of kings. Or so he thought. He had obviously underestimated Hillary Clinton's "Secret Police." Within a week they had disseminated a barrage of negative information about Willey and produced a parade of despicable characters willing to smear her reputation to reporters and on live television. And to top it off, as a very low form of tit for tat, the "Secret Police" apparently found and disseminated to the few remaining loyal journalists allegations of Hewitt and Mike Wallace making passes at female members of the "60 Minutes" staff. The Revenge of Don Hewitt had turned into the revenge of Hillary Clinton.


Mainstream media pundits express wonderment at the strength of Clinton's popular support. The pundits have now turned on Clinton, so why doesn't the popular majority turn as well? The mainstream media pundits are underestimating the effect of six years of propaganda. For six years the mainstream media have been telling the American people that the charges against the President are scurrilous, baseless attacks coming from gold- digging Clinton haters and an out-of-control Independent Prosecutor appointed by the extreme right. For six years, the mainstream media have characterized women accusing Clinton of sexual harassment as gold-digging sluts or bimbos aligned with the religious right. For six years the mainstream media have viciously savaged reporters like Ambrose Evans-Pritchard and Chris Ruddy who have asked nosy questions and stood up for the truth. One particularly nasty and disingenuous piece by Don Hewitt and Mike Wallace on Chris Ruddy comes to mind.

And now they expect the American people to believe them instantly when they say, no, no, forget everything we said, this time we are really telling the truth? Forget it.

Published in the Mar. 23, 1998 issue of The Washington Weekly Copyright 1998 The Washington Weekly (

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