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”.