From the heyday of Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas all the way up to this year’s linguistic feuding and fussing between Donald and Hillary, the “debate” has been a hallmark of American politics, allowing the masses to determine for themselves which presidential candidate possesses the superior blustering capabilities. In a way, our presidential and vice-presidential debates are sort of an ideological boxing match, representing the absolute pinnacle of rhetorical combat. Naturally, the proliferation of television as a visual medium took the debate spectacles to a whole new level. Under the extravagant lighting and grandiloquent set pieces normally reserved for prime-time game shows and pro wrestling events, our would-be leaders of the free world have verbally duked it out for electoral points for more than half a century. Naturally, with hundreds of millions of people tuning in and the weight of the world literally bearing down on the candidates’ shoulders, these televised spectacles have given us plenty of memorable moments over the years, with hard fought, multi-million dollar campaigns going up in smoke thanks to one linguistic slip-up or one brutal beyond words rebuttal. And with the 2016 general election just days away, what better time to take a trip down memory lane and revisit eight of the most memorable (and election-swinging) put-downs, screw-ups and self-defeating sound bites in the history of presidential debates broadcasts? Whether you’re a Democrat, Republican or Independent, you can’t help but stand in awe of these ruthless verbal barbs and inconceivable brain farts … all of which prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that in America, politics is indeed a blood sport.
JFK makes Nixon sweat like a block of cheese on a humid summer day
The very first televised presidential debate is something well worth going out of your way to watch – if nothing else, to see just how diametrically opposite the Republican and Democratic parties were way back when. Man, is it a head trip watching the Republican candidate demand more social security programs and the Democratic candidate rally behind more military expenditures, for sure. Now, going simply on technical things like intonation, response time and fluidity of delivery, it’s pretty hard to argue against Tricky Dick winning this one. However, the visual medium DEFINITELY worked against him, as the dude perspired precipitously throughout the affair. Even in low-definition, monochrome gray video it looks like Richard Nixon just finished up a rather heated game of racquetball while JFK looks as dry as an industrial pressed t-shirt. Indeed, Nixon’s sweaty showing here swore him off from ever competing in a televised debate ever again, and to this day, many pundits believe the less than flattering screentime to be one of the decisive keys to Kennedy’s razor thin victory in the 1960 election.
Gerald Ford commits political seppuku on live television
Gerald Ford was actually doing pretty well against Democratic challenger Jimmy Carter before the two agreed to a live TV debate (incidentally, the first one since Richard Nixon’s sweat-soaked snafu,) with many pollsters saying Ford had a big – if not insurmountable lead – over the peanut farmer/nuclear submarine commander from Plains, Georgia. Alas, Ford went on to own himself in his first linguistic throwdown with Senor Carter, infamously declaring “there is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe and there never will be” – a brass-balled refutation of empirical reality that would be like Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton saying “ISIS isn’t a problem” in today’s debates. The response was so bone-headed that even the moderator of the debate asked Ford to repeat his utterance – and, perhaps cementing Ford’s status as the stupidest person to ever be in the same room as the nuclear launch button – he doubled down on his incredulous statement, declaring Poland, Romania and Yugoslavia (all of which were under the iron thumb of the U.S.S.R. and their satellite regimes) were free from Ruskie meddling. Even now, many analysts say it was the moment that gift bagged Carter the election – and hey, speaking of this Carter chap…
Ronald Reagan steals Jimmy Carter’s debate notes, then proceeds to mercilessly hammer him into submission
Watching the 1980 presidential debate is kind of like watching Super Bowl XXIV – you know, the one where San Francisco beat Denver 55-10. Well, in this showdown held just days before the election, Ronnie Reagan was definitely playing the 49ers to Jimmy Carter’s Broncos, as he absolutely crushed, creamed and pureed the sitting prez on just about every issue. Indeed, Reagan’s tempered, well-spoken, jocular responses were so on-the-button – just take a gander at his famous “there you again” riposte on Medicaid – that viewers walked away with one of two impressions; either Reagan was the most skilled, knowledgeable orator since the heyday of Winston Churchill or good gracious, did Jimmy Carter just flat out suck and not know anything about his own policies. In reality, the reason Reagan came out of the debate smelling like a rose was because Reagan’s team somehow managed to swipe a copy of Carter’s briefing papers AHEAD of the debate, thus giving them a leg-up on literally everything Carter had to say. Alas, long before that news was leaked, the damage had already been done; in one of the biggest blowouts in election history, Ronnie R. decimated the incumbent at the polls, defeating Carter by an absurd 489-to-49 electoral point margin.
Amid Alzheimer’s rumors, Reagan lands the greatest counterpunch in debate history
If you ever wanted to see how not to run a successful presidential campaign, look no further than Walter Mondale’s disastrous ‘84 bid. Before he even went toe-to-toe with Ronald Reagan in a general election debate, he nearly sunk his campaign at the Democratic National Convention, where he gleefully stated he would raise taxes – a move he thought would endear him as “honest” to on-the-fence voters that actually turned him into your textbook “tax and spend” liberal cartoon character made flesh to the American electorate. Furthermore, while Reagan’s campaign struck gold with memorable ads about a “bear in the woods” and “morning in America,” Mondale lifted his campaign slogan from a damn Wendy’s commercial. Still, with rumors swirling that Reagan was beginning to show symptoms of dementia (indeed, Reagan made more than a few gaffes in their first debate in early October), Mondale desperately sought to turn Reagan’s age into a major campaign issue. Alas, Walter’s plans backfired spectacularly at the next debate, when after he raised concerns about Reagan being too senile to hold office, the incumbent responded thus: “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.” It was the ultimate “gotcha moment,” and even Mondale knew that was all she wrote for his presidential aspirations. Reagan would then go on to smash the Democratic challenger at the ballot box, winning by a record 525-13 electoral point landslide.
Lloyd Bentsen absolutely ANNIHILATES Dan Quayle
While far from a household name, Lloyd Bentsen certainly had a hell of a political career. After an eight-year stint in the House of Representatives, the Texan served as a U.S. Senator for 22 years and then was appointed Secretary of the Treasury, where he was instrumental in bringing about both NAFTA and the framework for what would become the WTO. Hell, he was even cited as the one liberal politician Margaret Thatcher admired. Still, Bentsen is remembered primarily for one thing, and one thing only: absolutely slaying Dan Quayle at the 1988 vice presidential debates with one of the most brutal political put-downs in American history. During the debate, Quayle – whose greatest contributions to the American political landscape are misspelling “potato” and trying to start a rivalry with a fictitious television character – responded to an inquiry about his ability to serve as president by stating that he had just as much political experience as JFK had when he made a run for the White House in 1960. As soon as the words come out of Quayle’s mouth, you can see Bentsen literally licking his chops, and when the moderator threw it back to him, he was ready to knock it out of the park. “I served with Jack Kennedy, I knew Jack Kennedy, Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine,” he declared, “Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.” What followed was perhaps the loudest “oh, know he didn’t!” audience pop in the history of political debates, with an absolutely flabbergasted Quayle – looking like he just swallowed a turd – meekly replying “that was uncalled for, Senator.”
Bernard Shaw sinks Michael Dukakis’ political career with the ultimate loaded question
The 1988 Presidential race has to be one of the wackiest on record. While George H.W. Bush was pretty much a lock for the Republican ticket, the Democrats – still reeling from devastating back-to-back losses against the Reagan war machine – looked high and low to find their ideal candidate. After frontrunner Gary Hart dropped out amid adultery rumors, it was an absolute battle royale, with Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis just barely outlasting a glutted field of also-rans, including Al Gore, Dick Gephardt and Jesse Jackson. From the get-go, Dukakis struggled with a “soft-on-crime” image, which was immortalized in Bush’s infamous Willie Horton and “revolving door” ads, so it was safe to assume that Dukakis’ stance on criminal justice reform would come up in the general election debate. However, few expected the arrow into the heart of Dukakis’ campaign to come not from his Republican challenger, but from the proverbial bow of moderator Bernard Shaw, who sought to test Dukakis’ resolve by asking him if he would still be against the death penalty if his wife was raped and murdered. With about as much passion as a lethargic high schooler trudging through the abstruse prose of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Dukakis solemnly said he was still anti-death penalty and went into a two-minute canned speech about criminal sentencing reform efforts in his home state. By that point, all Bush had to say was “I support it and he doesn’t” and he pretty much had the general election won.
Al Gore tries to punk out George W. – but ends up getting crushed without Bush having to utter a single word
Perhaps no president in modern U.S. history has been as mercilessly derided by the masses than George W. Bush. In fact, “W.” committed so many verbal gaffes as president that his facepalm-inducing malapropisms have their own Wikipedia page. That said, the notoriously poor speaker nonetheless managed to pull one over on Democratic challenger Al Gore during a late Oct. 2000 debate – and in true “W.” fashion, he did it all without as much as uttering a single syllable. During a particularly heated debated over the Dingell-Norwood bill (aka, the Patients’ Bill of Rights Act), the moderator asked the Texas Governor what made his policymaking efforts so radically different than his opponent’s. After Bush responded with the uncharacteristically succinct and grammatically correct reply “the difference is I can get it done,” Gore decided to leave his podium and slowly sulk his way over to W. And with the Vice President looming right over his shoulders, W. simply looked at him, nodded his head, turned back to the crowd and kept on talking. And perhaps demonstrating the utter brilliance of such a simplistic – yet deeply symbolic – gesture, even Gore couldn’t help but grin at W.’s unique approach to defusing the cringe-worthy situation.
Biden-a-mania runs wild all over Paul Ryan
Although Joe Biden has been one heartbeat away from the presidency for the last eight years, it’s pretty to hard to think of anything noteworthy he’s accomplished while Vice President. But just when it looked like the only thing Biden would be remembered for was that time he called another man his “old butt buddy” during a live speech (or maybe the time he demanded a wheelchair-bound person “stand up” in front of a crowd), “Uncle Joe” put on one of the most entertaining performances in presidential debate history when he locked horns with Republican would-be V.P. Paul Ryan in 2012. In an hour and half long linguistic steel cage death match, the sitting veep steamrolled Mitt Romney’s second-in-command like The Ultimate Warrior at WrestleMania VI, interrupting the Republican challenger no less than four dozen times, and – as a genteel euphemism for “bullshit,” perhaps – constantly referring to his opponent’s positions as “malarkey” over and over again. The painfully inanimate Ryan had no rebuttal to Biden’s wild – if not unhinged – debate style, which, among other things, entailed exaggerated eye rolling, theatrical head shaking and thunderous bursts of sarcastic laughter, almost always followed with sardonic “praise” of Ryan’s stance as “amazing” or “incredible.” Although it’s hard to pick just one “highlight” from Biden’s blustering bullying, my personal favorite is when – after Ryan brought up JFK lowering tax rates while economic growth increased – Biden responded, with bulging eyeballs and a set of arched eyebrows seemingly ready to leap off his face – “oh, now you’re Jack Kennedy?”