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An insider’s look at how Biden preps for a debate

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

But first this hour, a simulated debate. In 2020, a Democratic presidential candidate named Joe Biden needed someone to stand in as his Republican opponent, President Donald Trump. That job fell to a man named Bob Bauer, a personal attorney to Biden and a longtime Democratic Party lawyer. He watched hours and hours of footage of Trump in order to help prepare Biden for presidential debates. Well, on Thursday night, now-President Biden meets former President Trump for their first actual debate in 2024, and Bob Bauer joins us now. Welcome.

BOB BAUER: Welcome. Thank you.

SUMMERS: OK, I want to get one thing out of the way before we start our conversation. There have been reports that you are indeed reprising your role as Donald Trump as President Biden prepares for Thursday. Can we just start there? Is that something you can confirm or deny?

BAUER: I can't speak to any aspects of the debate preparation this year.

SUMMERS: OK. All right. Well, let's talk then about 2020 and what happened then. And that's something that you've written about in your book, which is called "The Unraveling." You've played Bernie Sanders and Al Gore in other instances of debate prep. And I should just point out here you, Bob, are not a professional actor. But when you're in these roles, you do want to be able to give sort of a close enough approximation of an opposing candidate. I'm hoping you can just take me behind the scenes generally of how someone like you prepares for this kind of role.

BAUER: Well, as I wrote in the book, in all of these debate prep situations, the goal is to approximate for the candidate that you're trying to help as closely as possible. And so you're trying to strike a balance between offering a realistic experience, a sort of projected experience on the one hand, but not slipping into theatrics on the other. I mean, this is not meant to be an audition for "Saturday Night Live." It's meant to be a constructive part of the debate process that really does give the candidate that you're trying to help a feel for the type of argument that the opposing candidate will make, the tone, the style that the candidate you're trying to help will face.

SUMMERS: Now, we know that former President Trump is not a person who really ever shies away from making personal digs, and I think that we might expect more given the current narratives around the president's son and the president's age. And while I know that you can't talk about the specific debate that is happening on Thursday. I'm curious, back in 2020, whether that's something that factored into how you prepared then-candidate Biden. Did you pepper him with direct personal insults to get him prepared for that?

BAUER: I write in the book that I had to. That's something you have to do. Again, you're trying to recreate or approximate as closely as possible the experience that the candidate will have. And if, in fact, the opposing candidate has gone down that kind of road, how low a road it may be, you can't flinch from that.

SUMMERS: I know that you in the past have been critical of the format in which debates were previously run by the Commission on Presidential Debates. And from what you know, and what we all know about Thursday's debate and the forthcoming September debate, does what we're seeing now - does that alleviate any of your concerns about, say, candidates providing - I don't know - canned answers, running over moderators, things that we've seen in past debate showings?

BAUER: Yes. I thought that there were real problems with the format of the presidential debates in the past, and I wrote about that as well in the book. In 2012, when I was representing President Obama and Ben Ginsberg was representing Romney's campaign as general counsel, we had a conversation about the value of really simplifying the debates and giving the candidates sort of more of a say in how they want to present themselves in the debate setting. The thought was to get closer to a Kennedy-Nixon-style debate, and that's what we're going to have without an audience - that is to say, this year.

We participated - I participated, rather - in a attempt to rethink the debate format that was sponsored by the University of Pennsylvania Annenberg School. We made a number of recommendations. Those were not adopted by the Presidential Commission, but some of them are reflected in the way this particular debate has been structured and, I think, for the better.

SUMMERS: Bob, I'm a former political correspondent. I've covered so many debates, both for primaries and in the general election. And so I know that there's this idea that presidential debates should be these civil clashes of policy disagreements to help the American public, and voters really understand their options and the differences and distinctions between two candidates. But, Bob, I also know that in the real world, in some of these recent debates, that has not necessarily been what we have seen. So I do want to ask you, given your experience, what do you believe it is that voters and particularly those swing voters that every candidate wants to attract - what are they actually looking for when these candidates stand behind those podiums and make their case?

BAUER: Debates have this unique significance. It does seem to me that whether it works or not, the candidates are taken out of the advertisements, taken off the campaign trail in front of their most enthusiastic supporters, put effectively side by side, and at least in theory, asked to engage seriously with issues with a massive audience looking on. And by the way, that's the advantage of not having theatrics, sort of stripping all the showtime out of it. At a minimum, it affords voters the opportunity to judge whether a candidate has taken them seriously, whether that candidate is attempting to inform them about positions and answer critically and responsibly the charges from the other side - just a discussion between a debate between the candidates. And that seems to be an irreplaceable component of the sort of dialogue that is constructive in a democratic process.

SUMMERS: That's Bob Bauer, the author of "The Unraveling." He's an NYU law professor and personal attorney for Joe Biden. Thank you.

BAUER: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Megan Lim
[Copyright 2024 NPR]
Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.
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