TOPICS > Politics

Past Debates

October 4, 1996 at 12:00 AM EDT


KWAME HOLMAN: The history of the televised political debate in America begins with what many consider the turning point of the 1960 presidential election.

SPOKESMAN: The candidates need no introduction.

KWAME HOLMAN: On September 23rd of that year, Sen. John Fitzgerald Kennedy of Massachusetts and Vice President Richard Milhouse Nixon met in Chicago for the first of their four televised debates.

RICHARD NIXON: First of all, I think it is well to put in perspective where we really do stand with regard to the Soviet Union in this whole matter of growth.

KWAME HOLMAN: While Nixon may have responded better to the questions, he wore no make-up. Under the hot television lights Nixon’s heavy 5 o’clock shadow and moist upper lip were clearly visible. Kennedy was considered by far the more attractive candidate, an advantage many political analysts believe made the difference in Kennedy’s narrow victory on election day. While no major debate since has impacted an election as dramatically as that one did, televised debates over the last 20 years have provided some memorable moments. During the 1976 presidential debate, Georgia Governor Jimmy Carter was quick to respond to a baffling statement made by President Gerald Ford.

GERALD FORD: There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe and there never will be under a Ford administration.

JIMMY CARTER: I would like to see Mr. Ford convince the Polish-Americans and the Czech-Americans and the Hungarian-Americans in this country that these countries don’t live under the domination and supervision of the Soviet Union behind the Iron Curtain.

KWAME HOLMAN: Four years later, it was former California Governor Ronald Reagan who put down President Carter with a simple four-word response.

RONALD REAGAN: There you go again.

KWAME HOLMAN: And in 1984, during his debate with former Vice President Walter Mondale, President Reagan managed to turn the tables on the age issue.

RONALD REAGAN: 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 (laughter among group).

KWAME HOLMAN: But President Reagan tended to ramble during both debates with Mondale, keeping questions about his age alive. In 1988, Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis was momentarily stunned before responding to the very first debate questions posed by CNN anchorman Bernard Shaw.

BERNARD SHAW: Governor, if Kitty Dukakis were raped and murdered, would you favor an irrevocable death penalty for the killer?

MICHAEL DUKAKIS: No, I don’t, Bernard, and I think you know that I’ve opposed the death penalty during all of my life. I don’t see any evidence that it’s a deterrent, and I think there are better and more effective ways to deal with violent crime.

KWAME HOLMAN: The Vice Presidential debates have had their own memorable moments, for example, this exchange between Vice President George Bush and New York Congresswoman Geraldine Ferraro in 1984.

GEORGE BUSH: Let me help you with the difference, Ms. Ferraro, between Iran and the embassy in Lebanon. Iran, we were held by a foreign government. In Lebanon, you had a wanton, terrorist action where the government opposed it.

GERALDINE FERRARO: Let me just say, first of all, that I almost resent, Vice President Bush, your patronizing attitude, that you have to teach me about foreign policy. (applause)

KWAME HOLMAN: Sen. Lloyd Bentsen’s response to fellow Senator Dan Quayle is one of the most quoted remarks from any debate.

SEN. LLOYD BENTSEN: Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy, I knew Jack Kennedy, Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy. (cheers and applause)

KWAME HOLMAN: And four years ago, the relatively unknown Admiral James Stockdale instilled some humor in his debate with Vice President Quayle and Sen. Al Gore.

ADMIRAL JAMES STOCKDALE: Who am I? Why am I here? (laughter in room)

KWAME HOLMAN: Bob Dole’s only previous experience in a national debate came 20 years ago against Walter Mondale. The face-off of vice presidential nominees is remembered for one partisan attack in particular.

BOB DOLE: If we added up the killed and wounded in Democrat wars in this century, it’d be about 1.6 million Americans, enough to fill the city of Detroit.

KWAME HOLMAN: The presidential debates of four years ago produced few memorable moments, but they made history as the first to feature a third-party candidate. But preparations for this year’s round of presidential debates are for two candidates, both now experienced in the art and well aware that history will judge their performances.