Op-Ed: Top 10 presidential debate moments in United States history

Posted Oct 2, 2012 by Andrew Moran
On the eve of the 2012 United States presidential debate, it would be a good time to look back at the top 10 televised presidential debates that have transpired since Senator John F. Kennedy and Vice President Richard Nixon.
Ronald Wilson Reagan.
Ronald Wilson Reagan.
File photo
President Barack Obama and Republican Party nominee Mitt Romney will go head-to-head in the first debate of the 2012 presidential campaign. It will be Mr. Teleprompter vs. Mr. Gaffe and it will certainly be an interesting 90-minute debate (be sure to follow @a_moran3 on Twitter for live-tweeting of the debate Wednesday night).
With the electorate, Team Red, Team Blue, political junkies and undecided voters heading to their television sets (or computers as YouTube will livestream the event), it’s time to head down memory lane and look back at some of the most memorable presidential debate moments in U.S. history.
From Ronald Reagan telling Jimmy Carter “there you go again,” to Bob Dole referring himself in the third person, to Al Gore attempting to intimidate George W. Bush; there have been numerous knee-slapping instances that will live on, possibly even until another Kennedy or Bush runs for office and the nauseating slogans of “hope,” “forward” and “change” continue to be spouted.
It’s time to stop being a Walter Mondale and time to get down to the top 10 presidential debate moments since 1960 – there were no televised debates in 1964 between President Lyndon Baines Johnson and Republican nominee Barry Goldwater.
10. Senator Bob Dole (R) vs. President Bill Clinton (D) – 1996
For some reason the Kansas Senator liked to refer to himself in the third person. During the Oct. 6, 1996 presidential debate against President Clinton, Dole liked to ramble, but he also enjoyed saying Bob Dole this and Bob Dole that.
“This will happen when Bob Dole becomes president,” “I think the best thing going for Bob Dole is for Bob Dole to keep his word” and “People would tell you, sir, that Bob Dole kept his word.”
Maybe this is part of the reason why the Dole-Jack Kempt ticket lost by nearly nine points against President Clinton and Vice President Al Gore.
9. Senator John F. Kennedy (D) vs. Vice President Richard Nixon – 1960
"If only Nixon shaved his five o’clock shadow and wore some make-up." It’s possible that’s what some Republican officials were saying in 1960 after the very first televised debate between Nixon and Kennedy.
There was a rumor going around that the television audience said Kennedy won the debate, while the radio audience said Nixon was easily the victor. Statistics and polls revealed over the years suggested otherwise. But who knows in the end?
The entire debate will go down in history because it would go on to prove that televised debates are a lot more important than what you do on the campaign trail.
8. Governor Jimmy Carter (D) vs. President Gerald Ford – 1976 (Part I)
Human beings or humanoids? No one knows to this date if either men were humans, but during one televised debate there were audio difficulties, which led to a suspension of the debate. Instead of relaxing and taking a few moments to exchange pleasantries, Gov. Carter and President Ford stood there motionless looking straight ahead.
7. Governor Jimmy Carter (D) vs. President Gerald Ford – 1976 (Part II)
It seemed like President Ford didn’t pay much attention to his administration and what’s going on in the world. In the second presidential debate, the Republican president told millions of Americans that “Poland is no longer under communist domination.” Much like today, the political gaffe made headlines during the entire campaign trail.
6. Vice President Al Gore (D) vs. Governor George W. Bush (R) – 2000
Gore was getting frustrated by his opponent’s responses. The vice president’s sighs were both audible and visible. Many believe this led to a lot of lost support because it showed his belittlement and disrespect to the Texas Governor – he did the same thing to Independent presidential candidate Ross Perot in a CNN “Larry King Live” debate seven years earlier relating to NAFTA.
5. President George W. Bush (R) vs. Senator John Kerry (D) – 2004
It seems President Bush wanted to return the favor of disrespect four years later.
“No he didn’t.” That’s what President Bush looked like he was thinking when he gave his Democratic opponent a scowl and other negative facial expressions throughout the debate when Kerry was giving his answers.
4. Vice President Al Gore (D) vs. Governor George W. Bush (R) – 2000 (Part II)
“You wanna go?” During a town hall-style presidential debate, Governor Bush was standing up delivering a response to a question. As Bush spoke, Gore stood up and walked towards Bush as if he wanted to fight. Bush nodded to Gore and this led to laughter.
3. Governor Bill Clinton (D) vs. President George H.W. Bush (R) vs. Ross Perot (I) – 1992
A lot of people like to say that if voters in the U.S. listened to Ross Perot then the country wouldn’t be in financial and economic mess it’s in today with a $16 trillion national debt. One aspect that lives on today is his criticism of NAFTA in which he predicted the people would soon hear a “giant sucking sound.”
2. Senator Lloyd Bentsen (D) vs. Senator Dan Quayle (R) – 1988
This wasn’t a presidential debate, but this is one of the most memorable moments in U.S. election history. Quayle, who would make numerous blunders throughout his vice presidency, including spelling potato “potatoe,” likened his congressional experience to President Kennedy in the vice presidential debate.
Bentsen replied, “Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy, I knew Jack Kennedy, Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.”
If this had been a presidential debate, Bentsen would have been president, winning by a landslide.
1. Any Ronald Reagan debate – 1980 & 1984
Whether you loved him or hated him, President Ronald Reagan was the most charismatic Commander in Chief in contemporary U.S. history. His opponents couldn’t even help themselves from laughing and enjoying a jibe from Reagan.
Here are some of his memorable quotes in the debates against President Carter and Vice President Walter Mondale:
“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.” – Reagan quipped in a debate against Mondale in 1984, which had the audience, the moderator and Mondale himself laughing in hysterics.
“There you go again!” – Reagan told both Carter in 1980 and Mondale in 1984.
“Are you better off now than you were four years ago?” – Reagan asked the American people during the final moments in a 1980 debate against President Carter.
Quotable quotes (notable mentions)
“Where’s the beef?” – Mondale said during the Democratic presidential primary debate in 1984
“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.” – Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis (unemotionally) responded to a question from debate moderator Bernard Shaw, who asked the Democratic presidential candidate, “Governor, if Kitty Dukakis were raped and murdered, would you favor an irrevocable death penalty for the killer?”
“Who am I? Why am I here? I’m not a politician.” – This will always be remembered when Ross Perot’s running mate Admiral James Stockdale introduced himself to the American people on live television.