Memorable debate moments


MYRNA BROWN, HOST: Today is Thursday, October 1st. Thank you for turning to WORLD Radio to help start your day. Good morning. I’m Myrna Brown.

MEGAN BASHAM, HOST: And I’m Megan Basham. Coming next on The World and Everything in It: another in our occasional series: Notable Speeches, Past and Present.

Today, instead of just one speech, WORLD Producer Paul Butler has combed through the archives and selected a handful of memorable moments from past presidential debates. 

PAUL BUTLER, PRODUCER: Televised presidential debates have been around for more than 60 years. Most people think the first occurred on September 26th, 1960, between Richard Nixon and John F Kennedy. That’s mostly right, as it was the first time candidates from the two parties went head to head on TV. But four years earlier, on May 21st, 1956, ABC aired a debate between the top two Democrat candidates during the 1956 presidential campaign. That was between governor Adlai Stevenson and Senator Estes Kefauver.

HOWE: My name is Quincy Howe, my assignment here in Miami is to discuss the campaign issues…

The debate was courteous, certainly by modern standards, though they obviously felt strongly about the issues—as you can hear in this exchange about how America ought to respond to Russia’s nuclear testing…

CLIP: This military cut back, and that kind of thing, I think you’ve made your positions clear. I’d like very much if I could, point out to the senator that I have never suggested postponing the development of a missile…

The 1960 Nixon/Kennedy debate is one of the most studied and analyzed televised debates in American political history. The broadcast opened with the two candidates seated on either side of the moderator, CBS newsman Howard K. Smith. For their opening statements, candidates each approached their own podium, while the other remained seated. The first to speak was Senator John F Kennedy:

KENNEDY: I should make it very clear that I do not think we’re doing enough, that I am not satisfied as an American with the progress that we’re making. 

Then Vice President Richard Nixon:

NIXON: I subscribe completely to the spirit that Senator Kennedy has expressed tonight, the spirit that the United States should move ahead. Where, then, do we disagree? I think we disagree on the implication of his remarks tonight to the effect that the United States has been standing still. 

What makes this debate memorable isn’t any particular moment, but how it changed presidential campaigning afterward. Most analysts agree that Nixon out performed Kennedy as a debater: in fact people who listened on the radio, overwhelmingly thought so. But those who watched on television saw Kennedy as a young, dynamic candidate facing off with a tired and sweaty Nixon. The image was a powerful metaphor. Oh, and television viewers thought Kennedy won. “Looking good” became an important part of presidential politics. 

Moving ahead to the 1976 election between Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford. It marks the beginning of the modern broadcast debate, with campaigns agreeing to a handful of televised events. Their first debate was memorable for a technical glitch near the end of the debate…

CLIP: There’s break down in the trust between our people…[BUZZ] 

Host David Brinkley had to improvise for nearly 30 minutes while they worked out the technical problem. The candidates stood awkwardly behind their platforms during the delay. 

The most memorable exchange from that debate season occurred during the second event when Gerald Ford claimed that the Soviet Union was not dominating Eastern Europe. Associate editor of The New York Times, Max Frankel, couldn’t believe his ears. The exchange has been edited for time:

FRANKEL: I’m sorry, I – could I just follow – did I understand you to say, sir, that the Russians are not using Eastern Europe as their own sphere of influence in occupying mo- most of the countries there?

FORD: Each of those countries is independent, autonomous: it has its own territorial integrity and the United States does not concede that those countries are under the domination of the Soviet Union.

FREDERICK: Governor Carter, may I have your response?

CARTER: (chuckle) Well, in the first place, 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 don’t live under the domination and supervision of the Soviet Union behind the Iron – uh – Curtain. 

Television debates aren’t just between the presidential candidates, they also feature their running mates. During the 1988 vice presidential debate, Republican Senator Dan Quayle and Democrat Senator Lloyd Bentsen faced off. During that campaign, Quayle was often criticized for being too young and inexperienced. Moderator Judy Woodruff asked him about that. Quayle had had enough:

QUAYLE: I have far more experience than many others that sought the office of vice president of this country. I have as much experience in the Congress as Jack Kennedy did when he sought the presidency. I will be prepared to deal with the people in the Bush administration, if that unfortunate event would ever occur.

WOODRUFF: Senator Bentsen.

BENTSEN: Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy, I knew Jack Kennedy, Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you are no Jack Kennedy. 

Sticking with the vice presidential debates, one more clip. Probably the most talked about moments from the 2008 debate between Joe Biden and Governor Sarah Palin lead to a political catchphrase: 

PALIN: So that people there can understand how the average working class family is viewing bureaucracy in the federal government and Congress, and the inaction of Congress. Just everyday, working-class Americans saying, you know, government, just get out of my way. 

BIDEN: Can I respond? Look, all you’ve got to do is go down Union Street with me in Wilmington or go to Katie’s Restaurant or walk into Home Depot with me where I spend a lot of time and you ask anybody in there whether or not the economic and foreign policy of this administration has made them better off in the last eight years…These people know the middle class has gotten the short end. The wealthy have done very well. Corporate America has been rewarded. It’s time we change it. Barack Obama will change it.

IFILL: Governor?

PALIN: Say it ain’t so, Joe, there you go again pointing backwards again. You preferenced your whole comment with the Bush administration. Now doggone it, let’s look ahead and tell Americans what we have to plan to do for them in the future. 

The next debate for this year’s election is on Wednesday, October 7th. It’s between Mike Pence and Kamala Harris. 

One more soundbite. When searching online for the most memorable debate moments, one of the top results is from October 21st, 1984—a debate between President Ronald Reagan and challenger Walter Mondale. It’s an oldie, but a goodie. Panelist Henry Trewhitt asked the president about his age:

TREWHITT: You already are the oldest President in history. And some of your staff say you were tired after your most recent encounter with Mr. Mondale… 

THE PRESIDENT: 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. [Laughter and applause] 

Reporting for WORLD, I’m Paul Butler.


(AP Photo, File) In this Dec. 8, 1960, file photo Sen. John F. Kennedy, D-Mass., and Vice President Richard M. Nixon appear in the fourth and final debate in New York.

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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