U.S. Presidential Debate Trivia: Gaffes, Zingers, More

Brian Handwerk
for National Geographic News
Updated October 12, 2004

Voters tend to forget most of what is said during the U.S. presidential debates every four years. But a few memorable debate moments endure.

Some are simply inaccurate facts or misstatements—such as President Gerald Ford's 1976 assertion that Poland and Eastern Europe were not under the domination of the Soviet Union.

"That was a gaffe that took him some time to recover from—mostly because he did not back away from the statement," said Alan Schroeder, a journalism professor at Northeastern University in Boston and the author of Presidential Debates: Forty Years of High Risk TV.

In 1988 Vice President George Bush met Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis. Moderator Bernard Shaw asked the anti-capital-punishment Dukakis if he would favor the death penalty for someone who had raped and murdered his wife.

The question was perhaps intended to give Dukakis a chance to display his "human" side. But his flat negative response delivered the opposite effect. It was a watershed moment in his campaign.

"He had taken that question numerous times," Schroeder said. "They had prepared him for it and practiced it. But he was sick and not at his best. I'm not saying that's an excuse, but basically he just gave the wrong answer."

Sometimes a candidate can get into trouble without saying much of anything. Take Vice President Al Gore's melancholy sighs during the 2000 debate with Texas Governor George W. Bush. Or the time in 1992 when Bush's father, then President, checked his watch during a town hall debate with Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton and businessman Ross Perot. The gesture gave viewers the distinct impression that Bush would rather have been elsewhere.

Other mistakes are not really accidental but are the result of the intense political game planning that occurs in any national election. In the 1988 Vice Presidential debate, Senator Dan Quayle, a Republican from Indiana, compared his experience level to that of John F. Kennedy. The remark set Quayle up for a devastating response from his opponent, Texas Democratic Senator Lloyd Bentsen.

"Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy," Bentsen said to growing applause. "I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you are no Jack Kennedy."

"Bentsen's people were prepared for that, because Quayle had compared himself, his age, and [his] experience to Kennedy at campaign events," Schroeder explained. "Of course there are always operatives from the other campaign in the crowd at those events. So that was a gaffe that [Quayle] really blundered into."

Candidates must avoid foot-in-mouth syndrome, because media coverage often focuses on such mistakes, which become amplified through endless repetition during today's 24-hour TV news cycle.

Continued on Next Page >>


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