A few days away from the US Presidential election on Tuesday and debate hype is giving way to the final countdown.
But we all love the debates, they mark the tuning in of America en-masse to the election, they make for hugely entertaining TV highlights (unless you’re enough of a polito-phile to stay up and watch them live) and, unlike here in Europe, they are the only times that rival candidates come face to face and lock horns in public.
Although this is the case, ultimately it is agreed that they are rarely game-changing events. Unlike many of the best Presidential speeches there have been but a few instances since the first debate in 1960 that are truly unforgettable. And, unlike candidate gaffes, campaign revenue generation and mud-slinging ads, few have substantially altered the playing field.
1. Nixon – Kennedy (1960): Nixon sweats and Kennedy shines
In the first televised US Presidential debate, Vice-pres Richard Nixon appeared clammy, old and unshaven, next to the tanned, composed and youthful Senator of Massachusetts, JF Kennedy. In an election said to be the inception of modern day American politics – based on likeability and charisma as much as policy – Kennedy surpassed Nixon in the polls following the debate and went on to win the election.
A couple of weeks before the debate Nixon had been hospitalised due to a bad knee infection, he lost weight and had not rested sufficiently. He wore a grey suit, which on black and white TV washed him out, and a five o’ clock shadow. Kennedy, in contrast, had just been campaigning in sunny California, he was tanned and good looking and wore a dark blue suit. In terms of response and argument they came out evenly, but aesthetically Kennedy was leagues ahead, something which may have cost Nixon the race.
2. Ford – Carter (1976): “There is no Soviet domination in Europe”
Post Watergate, this was incumbent President Gerald Ford’s second TV debate with Democrat Jimmy Carter. Although it was a close race, Carter was not expected to win, and this political gaffe by Ford is often said to be the reason he did. The audience, opponent and moderator gasped when Ford responded to a foreign policy question by saying, “There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe and there never will be under a Ford administration”.
This prompted Max Frankel, the New York Times moderator, to reply with, “I’m sorry, I – could I just follow… did I understand you to say, sir, that the Russians are not using Eastern Europe as their own sphere of influence in occupying most of the countries there…?” Ford did not retract the statement and America is said to have felt he was grossly out of touch with foreign policy and/or unable to articulate himself. Either way, he lost to Carter.
3. Reagan – Mondale (1984): “I will not exploit my opponent’s youth and inexperience”
Undoubtedly part of Reagan’s attraction was his ex-actor ease and charm in front of the camera. That, coupled with his consistently witty one-liners (who could forget “status quo is Latin for the mess we’re in”), gave him the lead in this debate. A typically brilliant Reagan quip arose when the moderator asked about his ability to sustain long, hard days as President, being the oldest ever candidate at 73.
Mondale, his opponent, was 56 with grey hair and over 25 years’ experience in politics. Reagan’s response to the question was, “I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.” The audience broke into uproarious laughter, as did Mondale, who lost the election a couple of weeks later with one of the worst defeats in history.
4. Quayle – Bensten (Vice Presidential debate, 1988) “Senator, You are no Jack Kennedy”
This has to be one of the most famous and still used debate quotes of all time. It is often cited to those who have notions of grandeur above their station. When questioned about his apparent inexperience (he was 41 at the time) in comparison to long-serving Senator Bensten, Vice President Dan Quayle said “I have as much experience in the Congress as Jack Kennedy did when he sought the presidency”.
Without missing a beat (to the point that there have always been rumours that it was scripted), Bensten retorted with “Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy”. To huge applause and Quayle’s hurt reply, “That was really uncalled for, Senator”.
5. HW Bush – Clinton – Perot (1992): Bush checks his watch and Clinton sweeps in
During the only debate involving a third independent candidate, the HW Bush – Bill Clinton – Ross Perot debate saw Bush Snr. grilled about how the recession had personally affected him. Bush was struggling to connect with the audience and answered the question with an abstruse tone, speaking in general terms about being President and feeling it because he was president. Not only this, but he infamously checked his watch, looking bored and agitated. This was the first ever ‘town-hall style’ debates; voters were directly involved, sitting close to the candidates and asking them questions.
This setting suited flesh-pressing, comeback-kid Clinton perfectly, he responded to the question by saying, “I have seen what’s happened in this last four years. In my state when people lose their jobs there’s a good chance I’ll know them by name”. The symbolism of Bush checking his watch was etched onto America’s psyche and Clinton went on to win. An out-of-touch elitist versus an empathetic people’s president – no contest.