8 of the Best Moments in Presidential Debates | History Hit

8 of the Best Moments in Presidential Debates

Alex Browne

17 Nov 2021
Presidential debate between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon. 7 October 1960.
Image Credit: United Press International / Public Domain

Presidential debates are often dull affairs, with opponents acutely aware that a single slip-up could cost the election. Candidates have a platform to press forward their agenda, but are also hoping to publicly dismantle their opponent’s policies.

However, not all debates are especially cagey, and they occasionally throw up remarkable gaffes. Here are 8 of the most significant moments from Presidential, Vice-Presidential and Primary debates.

1. Sweating the big stuff


John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon before their first presidential debate. 26 September 1960.

Image Credit: Associated Press / Public Domain

In the 1960 election presidential candidates John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon embraced the prospect of a first set of televised debates. Both were confident of mastering this new medium. In the event, JFK prospered and Nixon floundered.

Several factors militated against Nixon. Whereas JFK had spent the afternoon before his debate resting in his hotel, Nixon had been out all day shaking hands and delivering stump speeches. When getting prepped for the debate, JFK opted to wear powder to prevent him sweating under the hot studio lights. Nixon didn’t. Kennedy also wore a crisp black suit, while Nixon wore grey.

All these worked against Nixon. Pre-debate he had commanded the authority of a seasoned Vice-President, and his young opponent had struggled to establish his credentials. However, on TV Kennedy appeared much more composed and less nervous than Nixon, whose grey suit also blended into the studio background.

The visual edge that Kennedy had was ilustrated by two polls – in one, radio listeners thought Nixon had edged the debate. In another, TV viewers had Kennedy ahead.

The first debate edged Kennedy ahead of Nixon in overall terms, and the Massachussetts Senator retained his lead up to poll day, where he recorded the narrowest victory in election history. In such a narrow victory, small wins, such as the first TV debate, prove crucial.

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2. Sigh!

Al Gore didn’t even need to speak to gaffe during the 2000 presidential debate. His body language did all the talking.

His constant sighing was mocked endlessly in the aftermath of the debate. And in one peculiar moment, Gore stood up and swaggered toward his opponent (George W. Bush), standing inches away from him.

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3. Who is James Stockdale?

While Ross Perot was making a name for himself as a cheeky, anti-establishment performer in the Presidential debates, his running mate James Stockdale was delivering a less stellar performance in the Vice-Presidential race.

Stockdale was a decorated veteran of the Vietnam War who was awarded 26 personal combat decorations, including the Medal of Honor. However, he did not translate this remarkable record into political success. Famously, he opened the 1992 vice-Presidential debate with the line ‘Who am I? Why am I here?’

Although meant to be a self-deprecating stab at his own political inexperience, Stockdale instead left viewer’s thinking if he really knows the answers to those questions.

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4. Quayle’s Kennedy fail

I have as much experience in Congress as Jack Kennedy did when he ran for President.

Comparing himself to the slain, iconic President was always likely to leave Republican Dan Quayle exposed. His opponent, Lloyd Bentsen, saw a chink in the armour and struck with unerring precision.

I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.

Quayle could only tamely retort that Bentsen’s comment was ‘uncalled for’.

5. Cold-hearted Dukakis


Vice President Bush debates with Michael Dukakis, Los Angeles, CA 13 October 1988.

During the 1988 election, Democrat nominee Michael Dukakis was targeted for his opposition to the death penalty. This led to a startling question from CNN’s Bernard Shaw during a presidential debate, who asked whether he would support the death penalty should Dukakis’ wife Kitty be raped and murdered.

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.

Although it was certainly an unfair question, Dukakis’ response was widely considered dispassionate and dismissive. He lost the election.

6. Reagan’s age quip

As the oldest US President in history, Ronald Reagan knew his age would be a major factor in the 1984 Presidential Election.

The 73-year-old, when asked if he was too old to be President, answered:

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.

He drew a large laugh from the audience, and even a smirk from his opponent, Democrat Walter Mondale. Reagan had provided a perfect and memorable answer to the age critics, and he ended up winning by a landslide.

7. ‘There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe’

President Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter meet at the Walnut Street Theater in Philadelphia to debate domestic policy. 23 September 1976.

The year is 1976. The debaters are Georgia Governor Jimmy Carter and incumbent President Gerald Ford. This happened:

In response to a question from the New York Times’ Max Frankel, Ford declared that ‘there is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe.’

An incredulous Frankel asked Ford to re-state his answer, but Ford did not back down, listing a number of countries that he didn’t consider ‘dominated’.

Just to make things absolutely clear – Eastern Europe was thoroughly dominated by the Soviet Union at this time. Ford’s answer came off as glib and wilfully ignorant.

The statement stuck to Ford and arguably cost him the election.

8. ‘A noun, a verb and 9/11’

The 2007 Democratic primaries pitched several well-matched candidates against one another.

Joe Biden, when asked to define the differences between himself and Hillary Clinton, instead responded with an attack on Republican candidate Rudy Giuliani:

There’s only three things he mentions in a sentence: a noun, a verb and 9/11.

The Giuliani camp rapidly issued a response:

The good Senator is quite correct that there are many differences between Rudy and him. For starters, Rudy rarely reads prepared speeches and when he does he isn’t prone to ripping off the text from others.

Tags: John F. Kennedy

Alex Browne