Presidential debate had a few stretched truths, but no major stumbles

John McCain and Barack Obama misstated some facts and twisted others during the first presidential debate, at the University of Mississippi, but the candidates avoided major blunders that could come back to haunt them.

One of the most heated exchanges occurred over a July 2007 comment by Obama expressing a willingness to sit down with dictators such as the leader of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, "without preconditions." Both Obama and McCain distorted the record somewhat in the exchange.


This debate goes back to a comment made by Obama in a Democratic primary debate in July 2007.

On that occasion, the candidates were asked whether they "would be willing to meet separately, without precondition, during the first year of your administration, in Washington or anywhere else, with the leaders of Iran, Syria, Venezuela, Cuba and North Korea."

Obama's reply: "I would. And the reason is this, that the notion that somehow not talking to countries is punishment to them — which has been the guiding diplomatic principle of this administration — is ridiculous."

Several days after that debate, Obama amended his statement to say that preparations were necessary for summit-level meetings. "Nobody expects that you would suddenly just sit down with them for coffee without having done the appropriate groundwork," Obama explained.

In subsequent months, the Democratic candidate has been seeking to draw a distinction between "preconditions" and "preparations." He now says that any meetings with other leaders must be carefully prepared, a distinction that he failed to make when the question first came up.

On the other hand, McCain has played down the willingness of former presidents, including Ronald Reagan, to meet with America's enemies. Although it is true, as McCain asserted in Friday night's debate, that Reagan did not meet with leaders of the Soviet Union before the election of the reformist Mikhail Gorbachev, this was not for lack of trying.

Reagan attempted to organize meetings with Gorbachev's predecessors but complained that the leaders "keep dying on me." He met with Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko at a time when U.S.-Soviet relations were very strained.

The two candidates also tangled over whether former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger had advocated talking to Iran without preconditions, as Obama argued. During a panel discussion at George Washington University earlier this month, Kissinger said he was "in favor of negotiating with Iran" but stopped well short of calling for direct talks between the presidents of the two countries.

After the debate, the McCain campaign sent out a release quoting Kissinger, who is an adviser to the McCain campaign, saying Friday night: "Senator McCain is right. I would not recommend the next President of the United States engage in talks with Iran at the Presidential level."

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