As millions of Americans prepare to watch one of the most anticipated presidential debates ever, between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, it’s worthwhile to evaluate previous debates for a sense of what we should look for this year. What have been the best moments? What were the worst? When did our presidents and presidential candidates remind us of the best that our democracy has to offer—and when did their gaffes make us cringe for our country?
John Kennedy (1960): Of all the televised presidential debates that have since become the stuff of legend, none are as important as the very first one. Seventy million people tuned in on September 26, 1960, to see Democratic candidate John Kennedy face off against Republican candidate Richard Nixon. The expectations couldn’t have been higher for Kennedy, whose comparative inexperience caused many to doubt whether he was up to the job of being president. Fortunately for Democrats, Kennedy instinctively understood what it took to excel in this format—namely, that you had to talk to the camera rather than your opponent. As journalist and historian Theodore H. White later explained, “For Mr. Nixon was debating with Mr. Kennedy as if a board of judges was scoring points; he rebutted and refuted, as he went, the inconsistencies or errors of his opponent. Nixon was addressing himself to Kennedy—but Kennedy was addressing himself to the audience that was the nation.”
Ronald Reagan (1980): While some observers believe the Clinton-Trump debates will break ratings records, at present the distinction for most watched presidential debate belongs to the single contest between incumbent President Jimmy Carter and his Republican challenger Ronald Reagan in 1980. As 80 million people watched throughout the nation, Reagan repeatedly humiliated Carter by reminding viewers of all his least popular qualities. When Carter attacked Reagan’s health care policy in shrill tones, Reagan cranked up his personal charm and quipped, “There you go again!” With the country amid an economic slump and chaos abroad, Reagan used his closing statement to ask voters the iconic question: “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” A week later they answered by voting him into office.
Ronald Reagan (1984): Four years later, Reagan found himself in desperate need of a similarly fantastic debate performance. The first debate against Democrat Walter Mondale had been something of a disaster, with Reagan falling seven points in the polls after a performance that was widely regarded as lackluster and rambling (similar to criticisms made of President Barack Obama in his first debate against Mitt Romney in 2012). He needed to bounce back in the second debate—and he did. Asked by journalist Hank Trewhitt if his tired demeanor during his first debate against Mondale was the result of his age—Reagan was 73, making him the oldest presidential candidate in history up to that point—the former actor famously replied, "Not at all, Mr. Trewhitt, and I want you to know that 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." The reply didn’t address the substance of his critics’ concerns, but won over the audience by reminding them that their supposedly aging president could still employ his sharp wit.
Bill Clinton (1992): The town hall debate between Republican candidate President George H. W. Bush, Democratic candidate Bill Clinton, and Independent Ross Perot perfectly illustrates the importance of seizing on the opportunities arising from your opponent’s mistakes. After Bush was caught checking his watch during a question from an audience member, reinforcing the notion that he was out of touch, . Clinton showed off his personal charm At one point, the then Arkansas governor engaged with a voter who opened up about how people she knew had lost their jobs and homes during the ongoing recession. Clinton conveyed a sense of genuine compassion but also deftly transitioned to the themes of his campaign, including job creation, education, and health care reform. The moment encapsulated Clinton’s signature style—policy wonkery wrapped up in empathy—and propelled him to a win.
Lloyd Bentsen (1988) - Honorable mention: Though it is a vice-presidential debate moment, our next selection has nonetheless become one of the most quotable and iconic moments of televised political debates. Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis had selected Lloyd Bentsen as his running mate in large part because of the Texas senator’s extensive experience in Washington. A younger senator, George H.W. Bush’s running mate Dan Quayle, defended his thin resume by saying that he had as much experience as “Jack Kennedy.” Bentsen’s face could hardly conceal his horror, responding with an endlessly quotable put-down: “Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy.” Quayle replied that the attack “was really uncalled for,” but Bentsen quickly rebuffed that by pointing out that Quayle had made the comparison. ”Frankly,” Bentsen said, “I think you are so far apart in the objectives you choose for your country that I did not think the comparison was well-taken.” Ouch!
Richard Nixon (1960): While Kennedy may have set a positive example for future candidates in the first televised president debate, Nixon wound up serving as a cautionary tale. Although he applied pancake makeup to conceal his facial hair during pre-debate preparations, he still appeared to have a heavy five o’clock shadow throughout the night. Even worse, the powder began to melt off of his face, causing visible beads of sweat to form that made him come across as anxious and uncomfortable. To top everything off, Nixon’s light gray suit only accentuated his pale skin tone, completing a sickly appearance that was made all the more unattractive when compared to Kennedy’s youthful vibrance. As media historian Alan Schroeder later wrote, "You couldn't wipe away the image people had seared in their brains from the first debate."
Gerald Ford (1976): Shortly before the 1976 Republican National Convention, President Gerald Ford was presented with a strategy notebook from many of his party’s top political minds (including then-Chief of Staff Dick Cheney). As reporter Jules Witcover later wrote, the notebook emphasized that his campaign had no room for “any substantial error.” Unfortunately for Ford, he committed a terrible error in one of his subsequent debates with the Democratic nominee, Jimmy Carter. Asked if the Helsinki Accords conceded dominance of Eastern Europe to the Soviet Union, President Ford infamously replied, “There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe, and there never will be under a Ford administration.” After a follow-up Ford reiterated that “each of those countries is independent, autonomous; it has its own territorial integrity. And the United States does not concede that those countries are under the domination of the Soviet Union.” Whatever Ford intended to say, his poor phrasing made it sound like he was unaware of this basic fact of 1970s geopolitics. For a president trying to fight an image of bumbling incompetence, this was exactly the kind of error he couldn’t afford.
Jimmy Carter (1980): To date, only one third-party candidate—Ross Perot in 1992—has ever appeared with both major party rivals on a nationally televised debate. But a dozen years earlier Independent candidate John B. Anderson, a liberal Republican congressman from Illinois, came close when he was accepted in a debate with both Carter and Reagan. Because Anderson was expected to take more votes away from Carter, though, the president opted not to appear on stage that night; his absence wound up doing tremendous damage to his re-election campaign. Both Reagan and Anderson seized on the opportunity to take the high ground, although Anderson’s observation was the more insightful one: “President Carter was not right a few weeks ago when he said that the American people were confronted with only two choices, with only two men, and with only two parties,” Anderson remarked. “I respect [Reagan] for showing tonight.” As Carter learned the hard way, losing votes to a third-party challenger is nothing compared to the risk of allowing your main opponent to look magnanimous.
George W. Bush (2004): Like Ford in 1976, President George W. Bush needed to shake his image of ineptitude during his re-election campaign in 2004. While he ultimately prevailed over the Democratic candidate, Senator John Kerry, the Republican nominee was nearly derailed by a wardrobe malfunction that confirmed many voters’ suspicions about his intellect—or lack thereof. As television viewers and Internet commenters quickly pointed out, a black bulge was plainly visible on the back of the president’s suit during their first televised debate. Although the White House tried to laugh off the allegations that this proved he was having answers secretly transmitted to him, a NASA photo analyst soon declared, “I am willing to stake my scientific reputation to the statement that Bush was wearing something under his jacket during the debate.” Common sense confirms this assumption, and even though this wasn’t a disaster for President Bush, it remains one of the most obvious and shameful moments of chicanery ever exposed during a televised debate.
Bernard Shaw (1988) - Honorable mention: When the story of the 1988 presidential election is told, much focus is placed on the ineffectual campaign waged by the Democratic candidate, Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukaki. Yet while Dukakis did make many mistakes, he was also the target of one of the most tasteless questions ever posed by a debate moderator. Referring to his wife, Kitty, Bernard Shaw asked Dukakis, "Governor, if Kitty Dukakis were raped and murdered, would you favor an irrevocable death penalty for the killer?" The inappropriate question put Dukakis in the lose-lose position where he would either come across as overly-emotional if he became visibly upset, or insensitive if he stuck to his policy positions. For better or worse, Dukakis opted to do the latter, reiterating his opposition to capital punishment. In retrospect, his composure was admirable, but he still walked away as the perceived loser that night, and unfairly so.
What to watch for tonight: If Clinton and Trump can learn anything from these past contenders’ debate experiences, it is that you win debates by playing to TV as a medium—looking good, producing memorable lines, exuding empathy—and that you lose by being unprepared or behaving in a transparently unethical manner. Sometimes factors beyond one’s control also intervene, be they overactive sweat glands or unfair questions from the moderators. But for the most part, televised debates offer candidates an ideal opportunity to sink or swim based entirely on their own efforts.
Matthew Rozsa is a PhD student in history at Lehigh University. He has been a nationally published political columnist since 2012, with work appearing in Mic, Salon, The Daily Dot, The Good Men Project, the Huffington Post, and MSNBC, among other outlets.