John F. Kennedy vs. Richard M. Nixon (first of four debates)
In the words of one of the organizers, the legendary CBS newsman Don Hewitt, this first debate turned on makeup, the face-coloring kind, that is, not personal constitution. Kennedy spent the day preparing for the debate and working on his tan before taking a nap; Nixon, who had been suffering from a staph infection, spent the whole day campaigning. He arrived “in pain, looked green, sallow, needed a shave,’’ Hewitt said. Nixon, however, rejected Hewitt’s suggestion of makeup. The topics for the nation’s first televised presidential general election debate were domestic — cutting the national debt, improving schools, tackling farm subsidies — and both candidates handled the topics without significant error. According to those listening on the radio, Nixon won the debate or it was a draw. But most Americans watched it on TV, and they overwhelmingly were impressed by the young senator’s collected performance. Said Kennedy, four days after narrowly winning the election: “It was the TV more than anything else that turned the tide.”
Jimmy Carter vs. Gerald Ford (second of three debates)
Carter was a little known one-term governor from Georgia to many voters, but his campaign had gained momentum because of worries over inflation and residual anger over Ford’s pardon of Nixon. Ford’s perceived strength was foreign policy. Yet, that image took a body blow when he stated in the debate, ‘‘There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe and there never will be under a Ford administration.’’ The statement was so at odds with the facts on the ground that the debate moderator, Max Frankel of The New York Times, broke into the line of questioning for clarification: ‘‘I’m sorry, did I understand you to say, sir, that the Russians are not using Eastern Europe as their own sphere of influence occupying most of the countries there, and making sure with their troops that it is a Communist zone whereas on our side of the line the Italians and the French are still flirting with the possibilities?’’ Ford stood by his assessment but Carter seized the opening: ‘‘I would like to see Mr. Ford convince the Polish-Americans and the Czech-Americans and the Hungarian-Americans in this country, that those countries do not live under the domination and supervision of the Soviet Union behind the Iron Curtain.’’
Ronald Reagan vs. Jimmy Carter (only head-to-head debate)
Two phrases from the former governor of California would resonate for years. Reagan, after Carter warned some 100 million Americans watching that his Republican foe wanted to gut their Medicare and Social Security, smiled and said: “There you go again.” The genial put-down undercut Carter’s attempt to paint him as reactionary. In closing, Reagan asked the audience, “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” In a time of rampant inflation and a weak economy, the line formed the cornerstone of Reagan’s campaign.
Reagan vs. Walter Mondale (second of two debates)
Reagan’s age was becoming an issue; when he won the White House four years earlier, he was the oldest elected president in the nation’s history. One of the debate’s questioners, reporter Henry Trewhitt, cast Reagan’s age as a matter of national security: “Some of your staff say you were tired after your most recent encounter with Mr. Mondale. I recall yet that President Kennedy had to go for days on end with very little sleep during the Cuban missile crisis. Is there any doubt in your mind that you would be able to function in such circumstances?’’ Said Reagan: ‘‘I want you to know that . . . 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. . . . I might add, Mr.
Trewhitt, I might add that it was Seneca or it was Cicero — I don’t know which — that said, ‘If it was not for the elders correcting the mistakes of the young, there would be no state.’ ’’
Michael Dukakis vs. George H.W. Bush (second of two debates)
The first question of the night was stark, deeply personal, and provocative. “Governor, if Kitty Dukakis were raped and murdered, would you favor an irrevocable death penalty for the killer?” The question was meant to engage Dukakis, but his response was passionless, an antiseptic defense of his opposition to the death penalty. The response played into the emerging narrative among some voters that Dukakis could not connect on a personal level with their needs. Also, Bush’s campaign already had effectively labeled the Massachusetts governor as soft on crime through its ads on Willie Horton, a murderer who raped a woman while escaping on a furlough allowed by the governor.
George H.W. Bush v. Bill Clinton v. Ross Perot (second of three debates)
Perot did well in several of the debates, but some political observers suggest the election turned in this town-hall style debate. Bush at several points looked impatient, one time looking at his watch as a voter asked a question on the recession and the pain it was causing. During another question on the national debt and the poor economy, Bush struggled to understand the import or convey a sense of empathy. Clinton, however, walked up to the voter asking the question and engaged on a personal, visceral level about how the recession hits everyday Americans hard and how he’s felt their pain as governor of Arkansas and what he’ll do about it as president.
Barack Obama v. John McCain (second of three debates)
McCain, trying to paint his Democratic opponent as a free-spending liberal, described an energy bill that he said was loaded with pork. Then, he provided an answer to his own question on who would be so irresponsible as to vote for it: He pointed to Obama and uttered only “that one.’’ Instead of making up ground in the polls, McCain was subject to post-debate chatter over whether he was being condescending or rude to the junior senator.