Kids in the hall

The most awkward moments from the past 25 years of town hall presidential debates

CBS News

Sunday’s town hall debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump will mark the 7th presidential debate since 1992 where regular people get to ask questions of the two people vying to become leader of the free world. It will also inevitably be the 7th time in history that something totally awkward happens.

The town hall format, where candidates take questions from a pre-selected group of #RealAmericans while walking around in a small enclosed space, is a reliable source of some of the most cringe-worthy moments in a presidential campaign. Here’s a look back at some of the worst moments from previous town hall debates.

1992: the watch check

George H.W. Bush checking his watch during a citizen’s question about the economy quickly became a lasting symbol of how out of touch the patrician president was with regular people. But in the actual moment during the 1992 town hall debate, Bush’s decision to look at his watch was really just the beginning of a much more awkward exchange between president and constituent. When a young African-American woman asked Bush how the national debt had affected him personally, it was clear from the context of her question that she had confused the concepts of government debt and the economic recession. Yet Bush, ever the literalist, proceeded with an answer about interest rates. When the moderator tried to help clarify the question Bush became visibly flustered and inexplicably decided it was a good idea to take his frustration out on the questioner. The whole ordeal ended up being the perfect set-up for Bill Clinton to look empathetic and down-to-earth as he stepped in to commiserate with the young woman about the recession.


2000: invading Bush’s personal space

Even though it’s only the third most famous invasion associated with the presidency of George W. Bush, the moment when Al Gore invaded Bush’s personal space during the 2000 town hall debate is still a priceless moment. It’s also a lesson to current and future presidential candidates about the pitfalls of the town hall debate’s “everybody just get up and walk around” format.


2008: “that one”

Perhaps one of the most cringe-worthy moments of the debates between Sens. Barack Obama and John McCain was when the latter senator referred to the man who would become the nation’s first black president as “that one.” In an election cycle when the discourse around coded racial language was considerably less sophisticated than it is today, the comment still managed to become the central story out of that night’s debate.


2012: “Please proceed, Governor.”

In 2012 Mitt Romney thought he had President Barack Obama right where he wanted him. Convinced he had caught President Obama in a lie about the terror attacks that took place in Benghazi, Libya earlier that year, Romney’s eyebrows peaked with performed incredulity as he pressed the president. But instead of backing away from his initial comments, President Obama calmly leaned forward on his stool and told the governor to proceed with his statement. What followed was an unquestionable disaster for Romney as moderator Candy Crowley fact-checked him on live television while the President heckled him. “Can you say that a little louder, Candy?”


Honorable mention: Binders full of women

The other major moment that dogged Mitt Romney from the 2012 debate was when he told the audience that he had his staff bring him “binders full of women” when searching for qualified staff members in the Massachusetts governor’s office. Even though this comment followed Romney for weeks during the 2012 election, it honestly seems quaint when reflected upon in the era of Donald Trump. Gone are the days when a candidate speaking inartfully about his inclusive hiring practices constituted a legitimate political gaffe.