Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Debate Hall of Fame Moments...and What They Teach Us (October 3, 2012)

OK, this is the “must do” feature for the First Debate, the rundown of the great moments in presidential (or vice-presidential) debate history.  I remember each one (except the first one), and getting that immediate adrenaline charge, that absolute certainty that something historic had just occurred. 

Of course, most of them are gaffes….and when you get right down to it, only Jack Kennedy, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton have been masters of the form.  And….Lloyd Bensten…author of the ultimate debate moment.  The rest just try to survive an uncomfortable evening.

What’s amazing as you watch these clips is how these gaffes uncannily reinforce the negative perceptions of the gaffers…that Nixon was shifty, Ford had played too much football without his helmet, Dukasis was a bloodless technocrat, Quayle was a lightweight, Perry wasn’t the sharpest tool in the shed, Bush (41) and Romney were elitists, and Obama a bit too cool.  Amazing.  Gaffes never really come out of the blue.

I think the lesson from this, for tonight and the rest of the debates, is that you won’t see Romney or Obama make a gaffe that is simply a non-revealing mistake.  Romney won’t do a brain freeze, Obama won’t look sweaty and shifty.  Rather, look for the “inner elitist” in Romney to escape under pressure (as it did in the “$10,000 bucks bet” interchange with Rick Perry, see below), or for the “too cool” Obama to be revealed (as with his “your likable enough” comment to Hillary, also below). 

But both are, essentially, careful and well-informed candidates, with well-worn arguments.  My bet – no rocket science here -- is Obama will play it relatively safe, but be firmly on the attack to try to get under Romney’s skin.  And he will never lose his cool.  Romney will be an attack machine, will throw a few long bombs, and will likely be lass than 100% effective in those thrusts and parries.  And when he misses, he might miss big.

Check them out….

Nixon sweats through the 1960 debates…while Kennedy is coolness defined.

Ford denies the reality of Soviet domination of Eastern Europe, circa 1976…

Reagan defuses a Carter attack with “There you go ahead…” in 1980…

Reagan’s defuses the “age” issue in 1984…

Dukasis coldly assesses the hypothetical rape and murder of his wife in 1988…he could have been talking about the tax code!

This one is a beauty, a bit long at 4 minutes, but stick with it.  It starts with Bush 41 looking at his watch, clearly ready for the debates to be over.  And why not, as you watch him stumble his way through a textbook definition of a tortured response.  And then Bill Clinton (at the 2:30 mark) biting his lip and displaying that very common touch, offers a sharp contrast to Bush.

Perot’s running mate Stockdale asks the questions that are on everyone else’s minds, 1992…

Gore tries to get in Bush 43’s face in 2000…and Bush dusts him off with a nod.

Obama opines on Hillary’s “likability” in 2008….

Rick Perry’s brainfreeze in a 2011 Republican primary debate…

Mitt Romney wants to make a bet using his pocket change, also in 2011…

And my favorite of them all:  Lloyd Bentsen’s smackdown of Dan Quayle in the 1988 VP debate.  I watch it in awe….the precision of the message, the “you are toast” look, the smooth delivery.  Oh my. The ultimate debate moment.

Comments welcome!  And tune in tonight at 9 PM EST!

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