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10 debate moments that mattered

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Story highlights

Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin says debates reveal character strengths and weaknesses

1960 debate contrasted "vigorous" Kennedy with "sallow" Nixon

Reagan's humor defused Carter's indignation in 1980 debate

With a glance at his watch, George H.W. Bush underscored Clinton's ability to connect

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Presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin says that even though a lot of modern debates are programmed, there are still moments that no one expected.

“And it’s sort of like championship boxing,” she says, “you do get revelations of character, of temperament, of humor, of anger, and you get a feeling of this person during these one-on-one debates that really nothing else can provide.”

Goodwin describes 10 key presidential and vice presidential debates that made a difference:

1960 – Kennedy vs. Nixon: First TV debate

Just having Kennedy on the same stage as an experienced vice president made a difference for JFK because he could hold his own with Nixon. But then, of course, when it was listened to on the radio, it made it seem like it was pretty equal, and even some people giving an edge to Nixon. But he looked so terrible. His makeup was bad. He wasn’t feeling well. He looked sallow, He looked scornful. And people just reacted to that image of a vigorous, young Kennedy, and an almost sick-looking Nixon. And from then on, somehow JFK became a figure.

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1976 – Carter vs. Ford: No Soviet domination of Eastern Europe?

Ford had done well in the first debate, but in the second debate he was asked a question about Soviet domination of Eastern Europe. And he answered it incomprehensibly. There was already a perception, a vulnerability, that he wasn’t intelligent. And then this thing just got parodied, just got talked about, and became a huge event. When ordinary people watched that debate, they didn’t feel the Ford had screwed up. But when it was pointed out, that he didn’t understand what was happening in the Cold War in Eastern Europe, then suddenly they had shifted their minds, and he seemed much worse than it had seemed at that moment.

1980 – Reagan vs. Carter: ‘There you go again’

In 1980, Carter was primed to go after Reagan about his record, especially on Medicare. He was going on the offensive: ‘You did this! You voted this way! You said that!’ And Reagan, just with humor and subtlety, said, ‘There you go again.’ And it somehow relaxed Reagan and it took the offensive away from Carter. It was a brilliant answer to a really serious critique of Reagan’s past that might have been troubling for him.

1980 – Reagan vs. Carter: ‘Are you better off now than you were four years ago?’

There was no more brilliant closing than Reagan’s ‘Are you better off now than you were four years ago?’ What it did was to make people think, ‘Yes. That’s what’s happened to me. My economic life, my family life, my working life, has been hurt by the economy over these last four years.’ And once they realized that, it almost gave a poster to the entire campaign. It wasn’t just a great moment in the debate, it became a theme encapsulated in just a few sentences. And in the end saying, ‘if you are better off, then you vote for Mr. Carter. If you’re not, you do have another choice. Me,’ And at the same time, Carter gave a very weak closing statement.

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1984 – Mondale vs. Reagan: ‘I will not exploit … my opponent’s youth and inexperience’

In the first debate between Reagan and Mondale, Reagan had appeared old. He was the oldest candidate in history at that time. He seemed confused by some of the questions, his answers had wandered, and the issue of age really became a large question among the press. So when he comes back in the second debate, and they ask him, ‘Do you think age is a problem?’ He had that answer prepared, and boy did he nail it. It was subtle, it was humorous, and Mondale knew, he said right then, that he had not only lost the debate, but probably the election.

1988 – Dukakis vs. George H.W. Bush: ‘If your wife, Kitty Dukakis, were raped and murdered?’

The question asked to Michael Dukakis in 1988 was a difficult one. I mean, ‘What would you do, given your feelings about the death penalty, if your wife, Kitty Dukakis, were raped and murdered?’ And what you would’ve expected might have been a home run, where Dukakis would’ve said, ‘I would’ve wanted to kill that person who murdered my wife. But we have a country of laws and that would be wrong.’ But instead, he answered in a policy-wonkish way about the death penalty that underscored a vulnerability that he already seemed to be without emotion and without passion.

1988 – Bentsen vs. Quayle: ‘You’re no Jack Kennedy’