Live presidential debates are an intoxicating mix of highly staged political theater and unscripted moments of potentially career-ending hilarity. Incredibly, as entertaining as live debates are, the first face-to-face presidential debate in American history didn't happen until Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy's famous televised debates in 1960. Before that, the only truly memorable debates were the rhetorical battle royal between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas for an Illinois senate seat [source: Minow].
Today, we're a country of debate addicts. There were no fewer than 20 televised debates during the Republican primary season of the 2012 elections. But aside from a few awesomely embarrassing moments -- Rick Perry's epic brain freeze topping the list -- most were dreadfully uneventful. To find those truly great debate moments, we had to reach back into the archives.
We begin our list of the five most famous and infamous moments in presidential debate history with a fiery televised exchange that may have single-handedly launched Ronald Reagan into the Oval Office.
Reagan's Microphone Moment
Ronald Reagan's most memorable debate performance came during a debate that almost never happened. The location was Nashua, New Hampshire, and the debate was the last before the 1980 New Hampshire Republican primary. A local newspaper, the Nashua Telegraph, sponsored the debate, which was supposed to be a two-person face-off between the front-runners, Reagan and George H.W. Bush.
Days before the debate, the Federal Election Commission (FEC) ruled that the newspaper's sponsorship amounted to an illegal campaign contribution [source: Jamieson]. Bush didn't want to cough up half of the cost of the debate, so Reagan generously agreed to bankroll it himself. Additionally, he invited the four other Republican primary candidates to join the party.
The problem was that the Nashua Telegraph didn't want the other candidates on stage, and neither did the Bush campaign. When debate night arrived, tensions came to a head in a small high school gym packed with 2,000 restless spectators. Fifteen minutes after the debate was supposed to start, Bush took the stage followed by a visibly frustrated Reagan leading the four "uninvited" candidates [source: NBC News].
When the editor of the Nashua Telegraph, Jon Breen, started to explain the rules of the debate -- the four extra candidates wouldn't be allowed to answer questions, but only to give a closing statement -- Reagan interrupted him. Breen would have none of it, calling out, "Would the sound man please turn Mr. Reagan's mic off for the moment?"
The result was chaos. The crowd roared its disapproval, and Reagan rose to his feet, momentarily looking as if he was going to slug the small-town editor. Instead, he picked up the mic. "Is this on?" At that moment, he had the audience in his palm of his hand. When Breen asked again that the mic be turned off, Reagan turned to him and famously barked, "I'm paying for this microphone, Mr. Green!" (Calling him the wrong name was doubly insulting.) The crowd erupted and the debate was over before it began.
Looking back on his Nashua moment, Reagan would later say, "I may have won the debate, the primary -- and the nomination -- right there." [source: University of Chicago Press].
Ford's Poland Problem
There was a time not long ago when American presidential candidates were expected to have a broad and deep grasp of foreign affairs, and perhaps more shocking, so were the American people. So when Gerald Ford made a strong argument in a 1976 debate with Jimmy Carter that Eastern Europe was no longer under communist domination, even the non-social studies teachers in the audience knew that he was wildly wrong.
The moderator opened the debate by stating that "President Ford and Governor Carter do not have notes or prepared remarks with them this evening," which might explain how Ford could have mistaken nations that had been under direct Soviet control since the end of World War II -- nations like Poland, Yugoslavia and Romania -- for "independent, autonomous" states [source: The Miller Center].
To Ford's credit, a close look at the transcript of the debates shows that he didn't really mean to say that these countries weren't communist. That would have been factually absurd. What he meant to say is that they weren't under the thumb of the Soviet Union, which was only politically absurd. Unfortunately for Ford, his Polish "joke" provided further proof to an already doubting public that the President was hopelessly out of touch.
Gore Proves That Sighs Matter
Despite winning a majority of the popular vote in 2000, Al Gore never really had a chance at the presidency. While his policy points were impeccable, he came across to many Americans -- even his staunchest supporters -- as aloof, eggheady and dangerously boring. Contrast Gore's style with his opponent George W. Bush, whose shocking lack of intellectual acuity was more than compensated by his regular-guy Texas swagger and his clear distaste for nerds from Tennessee.
Before the first presidential debate in October 2000, Gore was widely predicted to cruise to an easy victory against Bush the Younger. But Gore's painful performance during that first debate changed the tenor of the presidential race for good. First of all, Gore kept yammering about his "lockbox" policy for Social Security and Medicare, which became instant fodder for "Saturday Night Live."
And then came the sighs -- clearly audible, exasperated, deeply whiny sighs that hissed from Gore's mouth every time Bush made another of his fact-ish statements. With each sigh, Gore sounded more and more like the "overbearing know-it-all" caricature he was doomed to become [source: Berke]. In the end, the sighs had it, and we had eight years of W.
Nixon's Not-Ready-for-TV Moment
From our vantage point more than 40 years later, it's hard to imagine that John F. Kennedy was considered the clear underdog in his 1960 race against Richard Nixon. But Kennedy was a relatively unknown and unproven senator, and Nixon was a veteran congressman and vice president of these United States of America under Dwight D. Eisenhower. But Kennedy's fortunes changed considerably after the two men made political history by participating in the very first live televised presidential debate.
The hard truth about television is that it's a medium that favors physical attractiveness, poise under pressure and the type of body language that radiates self-confidence. Nixon, already at a disadvantage to Kennedy in the looks department, arrived in New York for the debate suffering from the flu and 20 pounds (9 kilograms) underweight after a recent stint in the hospital [source: Cunningham]. Kennedy, on the other hand, had just returned from campaigning in California and looked tanner and more virile than ever.
Even in the grainy, black-and-white footage from that first debate, you can clearly see poor Nixon's flop sweat. One moment of the debate is particularly crushing for Nixon. Kennedy, unaided by notes, casually delivers a cordial but cutting comparison of the choice before the American people: not between two men, but between two parties with strongly opposing values. Kennedy ends by saying, "I think Mr. Nixon is an effective leader of his party. I hope he would grant me the same. The question before us is: Which point of view and which party do we want to lead the United States?"
Right at that moment, the camera cuts from a close-up of the tanned New England playboy to a pale, ashen Nixon wincing in his chair. "Mr. Nixon, would you like to comment on that statement?" asks the moderator. "I have no comment," says Nixon, sweaty and defeated.
Bentsen Goes Quayle Hunting
Lloyd Bentsen isn't exactly a household name, but back in 1988, the late senator from Texas delivered arguably the most devastating line in presidential debate history. To be accurate, this was a vice presidential debate between Bentsen, who shared the ticket with Democratic presidential hopeful Michael Dukakis, and Dan Quayle, the running mate of George H.W. Bush.
Quayle was yet to become the full-blown punch line of later years (remember "potatoe?"), but many Americans had already caught wind of the young senator's penchant for nonsensical statements and looked forward to his debate debut with great anticipation.
The crowning moment of the debate came after Quayle defended his qualifications for the office by stating that he had as much Congressional experience as John F. Kennedy when he ran for president [source: University of Chicago Press]. When you watch the clip, you can see the gray-haired Bentsen twitch with a mix of disgust and delight. Quayle was in his crosshairs. All he had to do was pull the trigger.
"Senator," Bentsen responds, fixing Quayle with a steely stare. "I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. [HUGE, AWESOME PAUSE] Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy." Boom!
The saddest part of the whole humiliating affair is that when the crowd finally calms down after going bananas for Bentsen, a deflated Quayle turns to Bentsen and whines, "That was really uncalled for, senator." You almost feel sorry for the guy. But then again, he got to be the vice president of the United States (with his own online information portal), while Lloyd Bentsen is only remembered as that old guy who ate Dan Quayle's soul on live TV.
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Author's Note: 5 Great Presidential Debate Moments
The 1988 election was the first election I can remember as a semi-politically conscious tween. And that exchange between Lloyd Bentsen and Dan Quayle was my first introduction to the brilliant embarrassment of the live presidential debate. Live TV is brutal. These poor guys and gals have nowhere to hide. I make fun of Rick Perry's inability to remember the names of the three federal agencies he'd destroy as president, but if I was standing behind a lectern on national TV with Jim Lehrer staring at me with his spooky black eyes, I'd be hard-pressed to remember the names of my children. Then again, no one forced these people to become political candidates, and most of them -- even the losers -- will go on to become rich and famous. So I take it all back. Bring the pain!
- Berke, Richard L.; Sack, Kevin. The New York Times. "The 2000 Campaign: The Debates; In Debate 2, Microscope Focuses on Gore." October 11, 2000 (June 18, 2012) http://www.nytimes.com/2000/10/11/us/the-2000-campaign-the-debates-in-debate-2-microscope-focuses-on-gore.html?pagewanted=all&src=pm
- Cunningham, Sean. Esquire. "Biggest Blunders in Debate History." October 9, 2008 (June 18, 2012) http://www.esquire.com/the-side/feature/presidential-debate-mistakes-100808#ixzz1xnSi3dX6
- Jamieson, Kathleen Hall. Packaging the Presidency: A History and Criticism of Presidential Campaign Advertising. Oxford University Press, 1996. (June 18m 2012) http://books.google.com/books?id=e4E-cStBa0AC&printsec=frontcover&dq=packaging+the+presidency&hl=en&src=bmrr&ei=OzHaT4_LFojO9QTpz_HqBQ&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=book-thumbnail&resnum=1&ved=0CDoQ6wEwAA#v=onepage&q=packaging%20the%20presidency&f=false
- Miller Center. University of Virginia. "Debate With President Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter (Foreign and Defense Issues). October 6, 1976 (June 17, 2012) http://millercenter.org/president/speeches/detail/5538
- Minow, Newton N.; LaMay, Craig L. Inside the Presidential Debates: Their Improbable Past and Promising Future. "Introduction." University of Chicago Press, 2008. (June 17, 2012) http://press.uchicago.edu/Misc/Chicago/530413_intro.html
- NBC News. NBC Learn K-12. "'I paid for this microphone ': The Reagan v. Bush Debate Controversy." February 23, 1980 (June 18, 2012) http://archives.nbclearn.com/portal/site/k-12/flatview?cuecard=4511
- University of Chicago Press. "Memorable Moments from Presidential Debates" (June 18, 2012) http://press.uchicago.edu/Misc/Chicago/530413.html