Memorable TV Debate Moments

August 1960

Richard Nixon (search) had seriously injured his knee and spent two weeks in the hospital. By the time of the first debate (on Sept. 26, 1960) he was still 20 pounds underweight, his pallor still poor. He arrived at the debate in an ill-fitting shirt, and refused make-up to improve his color and lighten his perpetual "5 o'clock shadow." John F. Kennedy (search), by contrast, had spent early September campaigning in California. He was tan and confident and well-rested. "I had never seen him looking so fit," Nixon later wrote.
          — In substance, the candidates were much more evenly matched. Indeed, those who heard the first debate on the radio pronounced Nixon the winner.
          — But the 66.4 million who watched television saw a candidate still sickly and obviously discomforted by Kennedy's smooth delivery and charisma. Those television viewers focused on what they saw, not what they heard. Studies of the audience indicated that, among television viewers, Kennedy was perceived the winner of the first debate by a very large margin.

October 1976

Gerald Ford (search) stated: "There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe, and there never will be under a Ford administration." The follow-up question:
          — Max Frankel (search), New York Times: I'm sorry, I - could I just follow - did I understand you to say, sir, that the Russians are not using Eastern Europe as their own sphere of influence in occupying mo- most of the countries there and in - and making sure with their troops that it's a - that it's a Communist zone, whereas on our side of the line the Italians and the French are still flirting with the possibility of Communism?
          — Ford: I don't believe, uh - Mr. Frankel that uh - the Yugoslavians consider themselves dominated by the Soviet Union. I don't believe that the Rumanians consider themselves dominated by the Soviet Union. I don't believe that the Poles consider themselves dominated by the Soviet Union. 
          Ford later talked about the moment with Jim Lehrer of PBS in Nov. of 1989:
          — Jim Lehrer: How important do you think that (the statement) was to the outcome of the election?
          — Ford: It was a factor. As you also know, we ended up losing by only a point and a half, or maybe two points. So any one of a number of problem in the campaign could have made the difference. 

Bob Dole (search) debated Walter Mondale (search) in the first vice-presidential debate. In that one, he enhanced his reputation as a political hatchet man by calling the wars America fought in the 20th century "Democrat wars." 
          — Walter Mears, Panelist: Senator Dole… two years ago when you ran for the Senate you said the pardon was prematurely granted and that it was a mistake. Do you approve of it now and if the issue was fair game in your 1974 campaign, why is it not an appropriate topic now?
          — Dole: It is an appropriate topic, I guess, but it's not a very good issue any more than the war in Vietnam would be or World War II or World War I or the war in Korea, all Democratic wars, all in this century. I figured up the other day. If we added up the killed and wounded in the Democrat wars in this century, it would be about 1.6 million Americans, enough to fill the city of Detroit. If we want to go back and rake that over and over again, we can do that. [15]

September 1980

Ronald Reagan’s (search) closing statement when debating John Anderson on Sept. 21, 1980: "We can meet our destiny - and that destiny to build a land here that will be, for all mankind, a shining city on a hill."

Jimmy Carter (search) on October 28, 1980: "I had a discussion with my daughter, Amy, the other day, before I came here, to ask her what the most important issue was. She said she thought nuclear weaponry - and the control of nuclear arms."

When President Carter challenged his opponent on his Medicare position, Reagan responded, "There you go again." 

Reagan’s closing statement in his debate with Carter: "Are you better off now than you were four years ago?"

October 1984

George H.W. Bush (search), then vice president, debated Democrat Geraldine Ferraro (search), the first woman to run on a major party ticket:
          — Bush: ...But let me help you with the difference, Mrs. Ferraro, between Iran and the embassy in Lebanon...
          — Ferraro: Let me just say, first of all, that I almost resent, Vice President Bush, your patronizing attitude that you have to teach me about foreign policy. I've been a member of Congress for six years; I was there when the embassy was held hostage in Iran, and I have been there and I've seen what has happened in the past several months; seventeen months of your administration. 
President Reagan, at 73 years old, was prepared on October 21, 1984 for a question about age; when he replied: "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." Even Mondale had to laugh. Mondale talked about the moment with Jim Lehrer (search) of PBS in 1990:
          — Jim Lehrer: And did you know that, that night (October 21, 1984), when it was over?
          — Mondale: Yes, I walked off and I was almost certain the campaign was over, and it was.
          — Lehrer: ...The line that came up where he said "I'm not going to exploit for political purposes my opponent's youth and inexperience." Was that when you knew you were in trouble?
          — Mondale: He got the audience with that, yeah. I could tell that one hurt.
          — Lehrer: Did that strike you as obviously a pre-programmed line?
          — Mondale: Well, I'll tell you, if TV can tell the truth, as you say it can, you'll see that I was smiling. But I think if you come in close, you'll see some tears coming down because I knew he had gotten me there.

October 1988

Lloyd Bentsen (search) to Dan Quayle (search), October 5, 1988:
          — Dan Quayle: I have far more experience than many others that sought the office of vice president of this country. I have as much experience in the Congress as Jack Kennedy did when he sought the presidency...
          — Lloyd Bentsen to Dan Quayle: Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy, I knew Jack Kennedy, Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you are no Jack Kennedy. (Prolonged shouts and applause)
          — Quayle: That was really uncalled for, senator. (Shouts and applause)

Asked whether he would favor putting the attacker to death if his wife had been raped and murdered, Michael Dukakis (search) responded on October 13, 1988: "No, I don't, Bernard (Shaw). And I think you know that I've opposed the death penalty during all of my life. I don't see any evidence that it's a deterrent, and I think there are better and more effective ways to deal with violent crime."

October 1992

The first line of vice presidential candidate James Stockdale’s (search) (running mate of Ross Perot (search) in 1992) opening statement on October 13, 1992: "Who am I? Why am I here?"

President Bush glanced at his watch as though impatient to leave his debate against Bill Clinton (search). Bush later talked about the moment with Jim Lehrer of PBS in April of 1999:
          — Jim Lehrer: The Richmond debate, Mr. President, you know you caught a lot of heat for looking at your watch. What was that all about, remember that?
          — Bush: Well I wasn't too conscious of it at all
          — Lehrer: I know. Well do you remember that?
          — Bush: It was, "He's bored." Yeah, oh God, do I remember. I took a huge hit. That's another thing I don't like debates, you look at your watch and they say that he shouldn't have any business running for president. He's bored. He's out of this thing, he's not with it and we need change. They took a little incident like that to show that I was, you know, out of it. They made a huge thing out of that. Now, was I glad when the damn thing was over. Yeah, and maybe that's why I was looking at it, only 10 more minutes of this crap, I mean.(Jim laughs) Go ahead and use it. I'm a free spirit now.

October 1996

Bob Dole’s response to Bill Clinton’s statement, "We are better off than we were four years ago," on October 6, 1996:
          — Jim Lehrer: Senator Dole, the president said in his opening statement we are better off today than we were four years ago. Do you agree?
          — Dole: Well, he's better off than he was four years ago.
          — Dole: ... Saddam Hussein is probably better off than he was four years ago. 

October 2000

Vice President Al Gore (search) sighed loudly and frequently in his debate against George W. Bush (search), as though terribly exasperated.