Ward Room
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A Brief History of Presidential Debates

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    NEWSLETTERS

    1960: In the first-ever televised presidential debate, Richard M. Nixon loses to John F. Kennedy because he forgets to shave. Kennedy is the youngest man elected president, and the first president good-looking enough to get women without being president. All of these developments are attributable to television.

    1964: Lyndon Johnson, the homeliest man in America, refuses to debate Barry Goldwater. Johnson had a 20-point lead in the polls, but he wasn’t taking any chances.

    1968: Nixon appears on “Laugh-In,” but refuses to debate Hubert Humphrey and George Wallace, even though he’s better looking than both of them.

    1972: Still debate-shy after 1960, Nixon again refused to debate

    1976: Gerald Ford says “there is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe, and there will be no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe under a Ford administration.” Meanwhile, in the first vice-presidential debate, his running mate, Bob Dole, blames “Democrat wars” for the deaths of 1.6 million Americans, “enough to fill the city of Detroit.” Ford and Dole lose, which was really hard for Republicans to do in the ’70s and ’80s.

    1980: Ronald Reagan, who made his living in front of the camera, shows off his pre-presidential facelift to good effect against Jimmy Carter, haggard from a year of dealing with the Iranian hostage crisis. Reagan, who is better looking than he’d been four years before, asks voters, “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” It’s the greatest line in debate history, and Reagan wins in a landslide.

    1984: Reagan, who is 73 years old, promises not to make age an issue in the campaign by exploiting the “youth and inexperience” of his opponent, 55-year-old Walter Mondale. Even Mondale laughs, and Reagan wins so much goodwill that nobody cares about his befuddled behavior in the next debate -- an early sign on his senility. Meanwhile, after the vice presidential debate, George Bush brags that he “kicked a little ass” against Geraldine Ferraro, the first female nominee.

    1988: The nastiest, most personal debates ever. After Michael Dukakis gives an unemotional answer to a question about whether he would favor the death penalty if his wife were raped and murdered, George Bush starts calling him “the ice man.” Bush also attacked Dukakis for his membership in the ACLU and said his answers were “as clear as Boston Harbor.” In the vice-presidential debate, Lloyd Bentsen tell Dan Quayle, “I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you are no Jack Kennedy.” Quayle protests, but he is never taken seriously again.

    1992: Because of Ross Perot and his aggressively cornpone debating style, these were the most entertaining debates ever. During a town hall debate, Bill Clinton walks out into the audience and does everything but hug a woman who asked how the recession had affected him personally. George Bush’s weak response: “I don’t think it’s fair to say you haven’t had cancer, therefore you don’t know what it’s like." Bush’s WASP blandness had been no handicap against the even blander Dukakis, but in 1992, it turns him into such a bystander that he checks his watch during a debate. No candidate has looked at a watch since.

    1996: There were three debates this year. I watched all three of them. I can’t remember anything that happened. There was also a campaign this year. I can’t remember anything about that, either.

    2000: Vice President Al Gore is so condescending during his first debate with George W. Bush that his staff forced him to watch a Saturday Night Live parody of his exaggerated sighs. This is also the debate in which he promises to put Social Security in a “lockbox” -- probably the most famous debate keyword ever. Gore again overdoes it in the third debate. Attempting to demonstrate his physical dominance over his rival, he invaded Bush’s personal space while demanding to know “Are you for Dingell-Norwood?” -- a patients’ bill of rights. Bush's mother, former First Lady Barbara Bush, said, “I thought he was going to hit George.”

    2004: President George W. Bush gives the worst debate performance in history, repeatedly whining that his job is “hard work” as John Kerry attacks him for his conduct of the war in Iraq. It doesn’t matter. Bush was narrowly re-elected (although not as narrowly as he’d been elected).

    2008: Joe the Plumber, an aspiring tradesmen Barack Obama met while campaigning in Toledo, Ohio, is mentioned by Obama and John McCain 26 times during the debates, becoming a metonym for the stuggling middle class. Joe, whose real name is Samuel Joseph Wurzelbacher, parlayed his debate fame into a book -- Joe The Plumber: Fighting For The American Dream -- and a political career. He is the Republican nominee for Congress in Ohio’s 9th Congressional District.