I have been watching presidential debates since 1960. I was only 6 years old when I started, but that year kicked off what has been over 50 years of debates with great moments, depending on your viewpoint. Here are just a few moments from history:
The 1960 debate between Senators John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon showed which candidate understood the power of television. Most everything then was televised in black and white. Kennedy and Nixon were in Chicago at the studios of CBS’s WBBM-TV.
CBS’s Chairman William S. Paley and President Frank Stanton flew from New York to Chicago to see the debate and meet the candidates. Paley had been at that time very close friends with outgoing President Dwight D. Eisenhower and had been on his staff in World War II under the SHEAF Command.
CBS News’ Don Hewitt, who later became the creator and executive producer of 60 Minutes, produced the debates. Kennedy knew how powerful television was becoming and that visual image was as important as the actual verbal exchange with Nixon. He was an early user of television advertising. On that evening, Kennedy wore a dark suit, looked tanned and youthful. Nixon wore a lighter colored suit, refused makeup, and looked old and tired. For a race that was neck and neck until the end, the Chicago debate definitely helped turn the tide for Senator Kennedy who won the Electoral Vote that year and became the 35th President.
In 1976, President Gerald Ford and then Governor Jimmy Carter were running against each other. President Ford ascended to the presidency on the resignation of President Nixon in 1974 due to the Watergate scandal. In one of the interviews, President Ford made the statement that “there has never been Soviet domination of Eastern Europe at any time and never will be under a Ford Administration.” Well, that was clearly wrong! He lost the election to Carter.
In 1984, President Ronald Reagan was having some trouble in the debates with his opponent, former Vice President Walter Mondale. The President’s advisers wanted to fill him up with figures and statistics to use against Mondale. But First Lady Nancy Reagan knew better, that the President was at his best speaking from the heart. Being a former movie actor and radio announcer didn’t hurt either!
When asked in one of the debates about his age being a factor, Reagan replied, “I want you to know also 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.” Mondale knew then he was cooked. The audience roared with laughter and Reagan won re-election.
In 1988, during the vice presidential debate, Senators Dan Quayle and Lloyd Bentsen were duking it out. Quayle was talking about his qualifications after Bentsen implied he didn’t have enough experience.
Quayle remarked, “I have as much experience in the Congress as Jack Kennedy did when he sought the presidency.” Bentsen replied, “Senator, I knew Jack Kennedy; Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.” Despite this, George Bush and Dan Quayle won but only for one term.
In 1992, Dallas entrepreneur Ross Perot and his vice presidential running mate, retired Navy Admiral William Stockdale, ran into some popularity problems when during a vice presidential debate, Stockdale made the quote, “Who am I? Why am I here? I’m not a politician.” Well, Admiral, what are you doing here then?
Politics certainly has its rough, tough, dirty, mudslinging moments but there are moments of laughter and comedy too.
See you next time.