Viewers who can't wait until Oct. 3 for the first presidential debate owe it to themselves to watch "Debating Our Destiny: 40 Years of Presidential Debates" (8 p.m., Sunday, PBS). The two-hour documentary features clips of every presidential and vice presidential debate since 1960, and one-on-one interviews between Jim Lehrer and almost every participant in these historic encounters, including every living president (Lehrer interviewed President Reagan on his debates in 1990) and some participants you might have forgotten. Remember independent candidate John Anderson from 1980? Admiral James B. Stockdale from 1992? They're both heard from, as are major party losing candidates, Bob Dole, Michael Dukakis, Walter Mondale and Geraldine Ferraro. Lehrer, who moderated all three debates in 1996, has been called by the Commission on Presidential Debates to moderate all three debates this year.
Lehrer observes, "The presidential debate has become a defining event in American politics. It has also become a required gauntlet for anyone attempting to lay claim to the Oval Office."
It wasn't always this way. When Vice President Richard Nixon and Sen. John F. Kennedy engaged in the first presidential debate 40 years ago this week, it seemed to promise a revolution in the relationship between TV and politics. But between 1960 and 1972, no leading candidate wanted to risk losing their lead in a risky debate. And the presidential debate of 1976 seemed to prove how perilous debates could be. In the first encounter between President Gerald Ford and former Gov. Jimmy Carter, an audio failure rendered the candidates mute.
In friendly and concise interviews, Lehrer gets each candidate to open up about pivotal moments.
Of all of the participants, former President George Bush is the most colorful and negative about his debate experiences in 1984, 1988 and 1992. Dismissing the format as "show business," Bush gets testy when he recalls criticism he took for looking at his watch twice during a 1992 debate. "Was I glad when the damn thing was over? Yeah, and maybe that's why I was looking at (the watch) Only 10 more minutes of this crap." When his frank remarks make Lehrer laugh, Bush adds, "go ahead use ... 'the quote.' I'm a free spirit now." He then adds, "Maybe if I'd have said that then I'd have done better."
Scheduled Olympics coverage includes track and field, bicycling and diving (6 p.m., NBC).
Eddie Murphy stars in the 1997 action comedy, "Metro" (7 p.m., ABC, TV-14, L, V).
Death stalks a nursing home on "Midsomer Murders: Blue Herrings" (8 p.m., A&E, TV-PG).
Scheduled Olympics coverage includes gymnastics, track and field and rowing (6 p.m., NBC).
NBA legend Michael Jordan teams up with Bugs Bunny in the 1996 sports comedy, "Space Jam" (6 p.m., ABC, TV-PG).
Kevin Spacey, Russell Crowe and Kim Basinger star in 1997 period detective drama, "L.A. Confidential" (7 p.m., CBS, TV-14, D, L, S, V).
Confronting crocodiles of Malawi on "National Geographic Explorer" (7 p.m., CNBC).
Sam Neill, Helena Bonham Carter and Kristin Scott Thomas star in the original cable comedy, "Sweet Revenge" (7 p.m., Showtime, TV-14, D, L, S).