By Brian Williams, Anchor and managing editor
I just got back from a great visit with 200 students -- a great, informed and involved group of young people who all attend Drexel University in Philadelphia, the scene of tonight's debate on MSNBC among the Democratic candidates for president. It occured to me today the view has changed from the podium recently. As someone who gives a fair number of speeches, it was a striking sight to stand at the lectern today looking out, as just about every student in the audience, at one point in my remarks, whipped out a cell phone and aimed their camera at me. Just as cell phones have replaced lighters as the light source of choice at concerts, they are now ubiquitous (in their role as cameras) at public events of all kinds. The students' questions were sharp: they asked about Africa (and my travels there with Bono), health care, the Iraq war, the process of picking debate questions, the role of the media in the national conversation -- and Stephen Colbert's broken wrist awareness campaign.
It's a sparkling day here, a great day for Drexel's campus to be on national display. Tim Russert and I, along with our senior political coverage staff, just emerged from a planning meeting where we went over questions. Presently I'm on the planning conference call for Nightly News. It's a full day.
Our in-house historian Andy Franklin reminds me that all the candidates in tonight's debate will no doubt closely scrutinize tomorrow morning's headlines to see how their performance played. The fact is, no politician should ever underestimate the power of a punchy headline, as President Gerald Ford learned 32 years ago today. On October 30, 1975, New Yorkers woke up to a headline in the Daily News that became an instant, unforgettable classic: "FORD TO CITY: DROP DEAD." It referred to a speech Ford had given the day before, saying he would offer no Federal bailout of New York.
The city at the time was going though a severe fiscal crisis, actually on the verge of bankruptcy. Ford took a hard line, insisting that New York put its own house in order. The president said he was "prepared to veto any bill that has as its purpose a Federal bailout of New York City to prevent a default." He never uttered the words "drop dead," but the Daily News headline -- written by managing editor William A. Brink -- resonated with New Yorkers, and seemed to sum up the bad feelings that existed then between the (mostly Democratic) city and the (Republican) Ford administration. Within hours after the headline appeared, Ford was asked by veteran New York reporter Gabe Pressman if "drop dead" was the message he intended to convey. "Not at all," said Ford, who blamed New York's fiscal woes on "mismanagement" by local officials. Ford insisted, "I have great sympathy for the people of New York, the eight million people who have been misled, who have not been given the leadership that they need."
Years later, Jerry Ford was more blunt about the headline: "It more than annoyed me because it wasn't accurate. It was very unfair." Veteran presidential staffer David Gergen was a Treasury department official in 1975, and had a hand in writing Ford's speech, which he later called "a doozy." Gergen recalled, "New Yorkers had not foreseen how tough the president would be, and Republicans in Washington had not anticipated how angry the response would be."
The irony is that Ford's tough stance actually helped force New York to help itself, fiscally speaking, and when the city began to do that, the president softened his position. New York recovered, and has since thrived. But the impact of that one headline was undeniable. It may have been in the back of New Yorkers' minds the following year when it came time to vote. In 1976, Gerald Ford lost New York -- and the presidency -- to Jimmy Carter.
A footnote: If there were such a thing as a headline hall of fame, then "FORD TO CITY: DROP DEAD" would certainly be among the first inductees. That is probably not the case for the far less memorable New York Times headline from the same day: "FORD, CASTIGATING CITY, ASSERTS HE'D VETO FUND GUARANTEE; OFFERS BANKRUPTCY BILL."
We look forward to having you join us tonight from Philadelphia, for Nightly News, and for the Democratic presidential debate at 9p.m. eastern time on MSNBC.