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Bloopers and zingers: a history of US presidential debates

© Tannen Maury, AFP | Don't get too close: Al Gore's curious attempt to get an answer from George W. Bush backfires during their third debate on October 17, 2000.

Text by FRANCE 24

Latest update : 2016-09-26

Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are expected to set a new audience record when they go face to face on Monday in the first of three presidential debates. But will their encounter prove as consequential, or controversial, as past debates?

The unexpectedly tight race for the White House and the unpredictable clash in styles between the two candidates – neither of whom is particularly popular – has generated wide interest in the 90-minute televised debate at New York's Hofstra University, which comes six weeks before the November 8 election.

Clinton, a former senator and secretary of state, will seek to buttress her credentials as a steady and competent hand, while catching out her inexperienced and notoriously hot-headed rival. Meanwhile, Trump will be expected to add a little policy depth to the jibes and putdowns that saw him dominate the Republican primary season.

Throughout the bout, both camps will be spinning furiously on social media in a bid to shape perceptions of the debate, mindful that Twitter, Facebook and YouTube can turn a below-par performance – like Barack Obama’s versus Mitt Romney in 2012 – into a terrible one.

Lincoln’s rhetoric

Social media is in the process of altering the nature of presidential debates – a cherished political tradition that, in American political folklore, goes at least as far back as the epic 1858 duels between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas.

Their seven marathon contests – featuring hour-long addresses, 90-minute rebuttals and 30-minute counter-responses – are still seen as the quintessential political debates and bywords for substantive discourse (though the pair was actually vying for a Senate seat, and not the White House).

In one of several flourishes, Lincoln claimed his opponent's plans for greater state sovereignty on the matter of slavery were "as thin as the homeopathic soup that was made by boiling the shadow of a pigeon that had starved to death".

Extract from John Cromwell's 1940 film "Abe Lincoln in Illinois"

Look like Kennedy

A century after the Lincoln-Douglas bouts, and half a century before the rise of social media, television rewrote the rulebook and instituted the norms that still govern debates: look good, relaxed and solid, and avoid slip-ups.

John F. Kennedy famously embraced the new medium in 1960, stealing the show in the very first televised debate, against Republican favourite Richard Nixon. The youthful, little known senator from Massachusetts looked far smoother and more telegenic than his rival, who was nursing a knee injury and refused to wear make-up. Radio listeners thought Nixon had won the debate, but the 60 million TV viewers thought otherwise and Kennedy went on to win the election by a whisker.

Ford’s blooper

If Kennedy proved the impact of a good debate performance, then Gerald Ford showed the consequences of a slip-up in a 1976 face-off with Democratic rival Jimmy Carter.

The Republican incumbent’s otherwise strong debating had helped him narrow a 20-point gap to just 6 points, but then he stumbled on a gaffe that may have ended his chances of a comeback.

Discussing the Soviet Union's actions in Europe, Ford bizarrely declared that "there is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe". Taken aback, the moderator interjected and asked for clarification. But Ford refused to admit his error and back down, suggesting that countries like Poland and Romania had autonomy from the Soviet Union. The gaffe was ultimately dubbed, "the blooper heard 'round the world".

Reagan’s quip

Age and physical fitness have been prominent themes in this year’s campaign, with both the Republican and Democratic candidates ranking among the oldest in history, and Clinton struggling to shake off questions about her health. But as a 73-year-old Ronald Reagan showed in 1984, the age issue can be brushed aside with a little witticism.

When the topic cropped up in a debate with Democrat opponent Walter Mondale, the incumbent quipped, "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."

‘You’re no Jack Kennedy’

Four years later a face-off between vice-presidential candidates delivered the highlight of the debate season, and what has been dubbed the best political zinger of all time.

During the campaign, Dan Quayle, the Republican VP candidate, had elicited comparisons with Kennedy for his good looks. But when he claimed that his political career was also comparable to JFK’s, his Democratic rival Lloyd Bentsen put him down with the following stinger:

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

Bush’s nod

Trying too hard to corner one’s opponent can prove counter-productive, as Al Gore found out during a 2000 debate with George W. Bush, during which the Democrat sighed, shook his head and rolled his eyes whenever his opponent spoke.

At one stage, Gore left his podium and walked over to Bush while he was speaking, in an apparent attempt to intimidate him. But the Republican simply nodded, as if to say “Hello”, and carried on with his statement – prompting laughter from the audience and leaving Gore looking rather odd.

Gore would go on to lose the election over a few hundred disputed votes in Florida, and Clinton’s strategists will be wary of history repeating itself. Bush was regarded by most Democrats as a political lightweight deprived of presidential gravitas – much as Trump is today. Gore may have won the arguments back in 2000, but coming off as lecturing and smug ultimately proved more costly.  

Date created : 2016-09-26

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