Tomorrow night, as you probably already know, the two major party candidates for President go face to face in a nationally televised debate. This is an historic occasion, since it will be the first time a female Presidential candidate represents one of the two major parties; it also will be held on the 56th anniversary of the very first televised debate, the first of three 1960 debates between ,Republican Richard M. Nixon and Democrat John F. Kennedy.
Those early debates have been studied and dissected by historians and media experts for years, and one conclusion all have come to is that the visual message is as important – probably even more important – than the actual words the candidates use. For example, one set of polls taken after that first debate showed that while those who just listened to the debate on radio believed that Nixon was the better candidate (or “winner”), viewers of the televised debates were more impressed by Kennedy. (How could they not be? He looked relaxed, had just gotten a tan, and had an artfully applied layer of make-up; Nixon, on the other hand, looked at times like he was an extra in a 1930s gangster movie).
Nixon certainly learned his lesson from that experience; although he ran for president two more times (and won), he avoided any televised debates.
It wasn’t until 1976 that the networks got the two major candidates to agree to debate one another on television. Republican Gerald Ford and Democrat Jimmy Carter met face to face in the fall of 1976, but the debates did not go smoothly. First, a transformer blew, eliminating the audio feed. For 27 minutes, the two candidates stood in front of the cameras, trying to look relaxed, but obviously uncomfortable. Each was afraid to move away from their microphones just in case the audio was restored. Certainly an awkward episode for the candidates, their handlers, the networks, and the audience!
Then, to make matters worse for Gerald Ford, at another debate, he insisted “There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe.” Ouch! He never quite recovered from that!
Skipping a few elections, in 1992, there were three candidates in front of the television cameras: George H.W. Bush, fresh from victory in the first Gulf War, youthful looking Bill Clinton, and the man with a pronounced Texas twang, billionaire H. Ross Perot. Perot certainly injected interest into the debates, and even the other two candidates seemed to enjoy their experience in front of the cameras!
Sometimes, the issues seem to be overshadowed by the little quirks of the candidates, as in one of the 2000 Presidential debates between George W. Bush and Al Gore; Gore was roundly criticized for his audible sighing at some of his opponent’s responses. (Maybe if he hadn’t sighed so much, the Supreme Court would have ruled in his favor in December 2000? Just a thought).
But some of the most entertaining political debates have been between those running for the #2 job – Vice-President. In 1984, for example, Democratic V.P,. nominee Geraldine Ferraro accused her opponent, Republican V.P. George H.W. Bush of being “patronizing” when he corrected her on a minor issue of foreign policy.
And then, there was the moment in the 1988 V.P. debate when Republican nominee Dan Quayle defended himself from criticism that he was too young and inexperienced to be V.P. by comparing himself to John F. Kennedy. After pausing for a couple of seconds, Democratic nominee Lloyd Bentsen pointed out to him that “You’re no Jack Kennedy.” A bit obvious, but Democratic viewers loved it. While Dan Quayle did become V.P., his reputation never quite recovered (and it’s unfortunate, because he knew more about the workings of the U.S. Senate than anyone else in the government).
The 2008 V.P. debate was probably the one most watched, largely because the Republican V.P. candidate was a source of amusement and curiosity: Alaska governor Sarah Palin. She had proudly asserted she was something of an expert on the former Soviet Union because “I can see Russia from my front porch”. Of course, the debate came after several weeks of SNL skits featuring Amy Poehler as Hillary Clinton and Tina Fey as Sarah Palin, so the audience had been primed. (Apparently, many of the viewers of the actual debate enjoyed it even more by playing a drinking game)
But, for me, no debate, whether between Presidential candidates or their running mates, has had a more surreal moment than in the 1992 V.P. debate. The three V.P. candidates were V.P. Dan Quayle, Democrat Al Gore, and Ross Perot’s running mate, Admiral James Stockdale, who, to begin his opening remarks, asked two important, questions: “Who Am I?” and “Why Am I Here”? No one watching him could answer either of those questions at the time, and after the debate, few people could be sure that even Stockdale knew the answers. But, being a historian, I did some digging into Stockdale’s background, and discovered that not only was he a retired Naval Admiral, but he had been the commander of one of the U.S. Naval ships supposedly attacked by the North Vietnamese in August of 1964 in the Tonkin Gulf. That incident (or series of incidents) led to the U.S. escalation of the war in Vietnam. However, many historians are now convinced that at least one of the incidents never really happened…hmmm….
Tomorrow night’s debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump should be interesting; I think it will be best for my marriage if my husband, a conservative Republican, and I, a liberal Democrat, watch it in separate rooms…or maybe we should try one of those drinking games????