Donald Trump hinted over the weekend that he may skip a couple of the scheduled presidential debates because they conflict with National Football League games, an effort to diminish the debate’s audience, he claimed. The Commission on Presidential Debates, a non-profit foundation created by the major political parties to put on debates, denied Trump’s charge. However, the brouhaha brought back memories of a previous time the Commission on Presidential Debates was tangled in a debate melee and I was involved.

The Commission on Presidential Debates was created in 1987 to ensure that debates were part of every general election providing information to voters. Following the Nixon-Kennedy debates of 1960 there were no presidential debates the next three presidential elections. Debates sponsored by the League of Women Voters were held in 1976 and the League continued to sponsor debates until the political parties created the commission to take over despite objections from the League.

Given the League’s historic relationship with presidential debates, and probably to sooth feelings, the commission chose the League of Women Voters to sponsor the second 1988 presidential debate between Vice President George H. W. Bush and Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis in Los Angeles’s Shrine Auditorium.

However, only 10 days before the October 13 debate, the League protested some of the format changes demanded by the campaigns. The League withdrew its sponsorship, declaring in a press release it would not “Help Perpetrate a Fraud.”

According to the press release, most objectionable to the League were conditions that gave the campaigns unprecedented control over the proceedings including controlling “the selection of questioners, the composition of the audience, hall access for the press and other issues.”

With no sponsors to cover the costs, the commission scrambled for support to help put on the debate as scheduled. A number of groups came forth to help fund the half-million dollar budget including the Los Angeles Times, ARCO Corporation and the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Foundation, which I led.

The debate was moved to UCLA’s basketball arena, Pauley Pavilion, and extensive work continued around the clock to get the arena ready in time to broadcast the debate. I recall the day we delivered the check there were cables all over the floor.

The most remembered point in the debate came right at the top when moderator Bernard Shaw of CNN started by asking Michael Dukakis if he would support the death penalty if his wife were raped and murdered. Dukakis’ dispassionate response cost him dearly according to political analysts. (A transcript is here.)

Our effort to help make the debate possible did get us a few tickets to the debate but not full recognition. The foundation was included in the program but when the head of the Democratic Party spoke to the audience before hand and thanked the organizations that came to the rescue of the Commission on Presidential Debates he left us out!