Presidential Debates: 8 Memorable Moments

The first presidential debate between President Obama and Governor Romney is scheduled for tomorrow night, which leads to a question: Do presidential debates really matter?

Over the past few weeks, I’ve read numerous analyses that suggest there is scant evidence to conclude that races are won or lost based on debates alone. But what is indisputable is that presidential debates often create long-lasting images and indelible moments.

The eight clips below represent some of the most memorable debate moments from the television era, dating from 1960 – 2008.

John F. Kennedy vs. Richard Nixon: Makeup Matters (1960)

Few can recall what Richard Nixon said in the first televised presidential debate with John F. Kennedy in 1960, but many people remember how he looked. Mr. Nixon, who refused makeup, appeared pale and sweaty. Mr. Kennedy, who wore makeup, looked poised and comfortable.

Americans who heard the debate on the radio concluded that Nixon had won; those who watched it on television sided with Kennedy.

Gerald Ford: There Is No Soviet Domination of Eastern Europe (1976)

President Gerald Ford, running for his first full term, asserted during his second debate against Governor Jimmy Carter that, “there is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe.” He was wrong on the facts. When offered the chance to correct his statement by an incredulous moderator, he held his ground.

Within days, Ford aides insisted that he was only trying to avoid acknowledging the legitimacy of Soviet domination. But his comment seemed clear at the time, and the gaffe likely contributed to his loss.

Ronald Reagan: Are You Better Off Than You Were Four Years Ago? (1980)

Polls showed a close race when Governor Ronald Reagan met incumbent President Jimmy Carter in 1980. With just one rhetorical question, Mr. Reagan helped ensure his victory days later.

Ronald Reagan: I Won’t Exploit My Opponent’s Youth and Inexperience (1984)

When running for re-election in 1984, President Reagan was dogged with rumors of his diminishing mental capacity; some critics wondered if he was too old and tired for the job. Mr. Reagan put those rumors almost entirely to rest with one of his trademark quips; even opponent Walter Mondale seemed to recognize it was all over in that moment.

Michael Dukakis: The Rape and Murder Question (1988)

When CNN moderator Bernard Shaw asked Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis if he would favor the death penalty if his wife was raped and murdered, Dukakis delivered an emotionless and almost inhuman answer that earned him reams of negative press.

The correct answer would have been something closer to: “Bernard, if that happened to my wife, I’d want to kill the person who did it myself. But that’s not how we should be making national policy…”

Bill Clinton vs. George H.W. Bush: Do You Understand? (1992)

When a woman asked President Bush how the national debt affected him personally, he first checked his watch, then delivered a disconnected and unconvincing answer.

When it was Bill Clinton’s turn to answer her question, he walked toward her, asked her how it had affected her, and delivered a personal answer in which he said, “When people lose their jobs, there’s a good chance I know them by their names.”

The contrast between the two men rarely appeared starker.

Al Gore: The Exasperated Sighs (2000)

During the first presidential debate, Vice President Al Gore couldn’t contain his exasperation with Governor George W. Bush. During several points in the debate, Gore condescendingly sighed loudly at his opponent’s statements.

Those sighs became the lead media narrative after the debate; they were even more devastating when the networks edited the sighs together. As a result of the media criticism, Gore was gun shy during the second debate. He never found the right tone.

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John McCain: That One (2008)

John McCain’s campaign was floundering when he met Senator Barack Obama for their second debate. Out of seeming frustration, Senator McCain referred to Mr. Obama as “that one.”

In a year that produced few memorable debate moments, Mr. McCain’s dismissive comment stood in marked contrast to Mr. Obama’s “cool” persona and generated more than a few “what did he just call him?” reactions.

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