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.

In 1984 73-year-old Republican President Ronald Reagan's advancing age was a campaign issue, especially after a poor showing in the first Presidential debate. Reagan largely diffused the issue with a memorable quip in the second round.

"I want you to know that also I will not make age an issue of this campaign," he told 56-year-old opponent Walter Mondale, Vice President in the Democractic Carter White House. "I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent's youth and inexperience."

Another Reaganism—his 1980 question to voters, "Are you better off now than you were four years ago?"—has more than stood the test of time.

"That comment has entered the political vocabulary," Schroeder said. "It comes up in every campaign."

Setting the Stage

Behind the verbiage of presidential debates is an elaborately detailed production. Like duels, debates have ground rules. Many are designed to increase a candidate's all-important television appeal. Shorter candidates routinely use risers behind their podiums to mask height discrepancies. Even movement is choreographed.

"This year, for instance, it's written [in the rules] that [the candidates] couldn't move from behind the lecterns," Schroeder said. "This was mostly at the Bush people's suggestion, because Kerry did that in his 1996 senate debate versus Massachusetts Governor William Weld. [Kerry] would work the space a little more, and it played very well on TV."

Audiences are managed as well—to be as little a part of the debate as possible. The public is generally kept unlit and off camera because politicians are afraid that visuals of audience reactions may influence viewer perception.

But somewhere in that audience are the candidates' spouses, and where they sit is very negotiable. "In 1996 Bob Dole insisted that his wife be visible to him at all times, because her job was to remind him to smile," Schroeder said. "So he'd be able to see her smiling and remember that he should have a smile on his face."

Substance or Spin?

Are U.S. presidential debates just so much hot air, or do they really influence elections? Schroeder points to two debates that were particularly influential.

Democratic President John F. Kennedy reached the White House thanks, in part, to his 1960 debates with Republican candidate Richard Nixon. The first debate offered the greatest contrast: Tanned, telegenic Kennedy made a much better visual impression than pale, makeup free, stubble-chinned Nixon, who was recovering from the flu. Radio listeners had considerably different perceptions of the contest than television viewers.

The second election-changing debate was the single 1980 Ronald Reagan-Jimmy Carter debate—held a week before the election, the latest a debate has occurred. "That one is thought to have been quite pivotal for Reagan," Schroeder said. "Those [two examples] are really the only ones that I think you could look at and say that they made a big difference."

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