Presidential debate superlatives from the past 50 years

Updated 9:05 AM EST, Mon March 7, 2016
02:06 - Source: CNN
Best debate moments in history

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It has been almost 55 years since the first televised presidential debate occurred between Sen. John F. Kennedy and Vice President Richard Nixon. Over the last half century, the debates have provided many entertaining moments – some intentional, others not so much.

In case you need a refresher on the last five decades, here are some of the best moments. Watch these and many other memorable moments in the video above.

Best zinger

During the 1988 campaign, Republican vice presidential candidate Sen. Dan Quayle was questioned about his ability to serve as president if needed. The 41-year-old compared his congressional accomplishments to those of President John F. Kennedy, who became president when he was 43.

Quayle’s opponent, Texas Sen. Lloyd Bentsen responded by saying, “I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.” The crowd erupted in applause.

While Bentsen and presidential candidate Michael Dukakis would lose the election to Quayle and George H.W. Bush, that quip won Bentsen a place in the history books.

Runner-up: The moment in a 1984 presidential debate when Reagan shot down a question about his age. Reagan, who was 73-years-old at the time, said, “I will not exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.” His opponent, Vice President Walter Mondale, was 56.

Worst dressed (and made up)

When Kennedy and Nixon stepped in front of the cameras for the first televised debate in 1960, who would have guessed that success would hinge on makeup?

Kennedy showed up to the debate rested and relaxed. Nixon had come from a day of campaigning and looked twitchy and nervous on camera.

To top it all off, Nixon refused the network’s offer of makeup, a look that didn’t translate well on screen.

Overall, people listening to the debate on the radio thought Nixon won. Those watching the televised version thought Kennedy won. And he also went on to win the election.

Best use of revisionist history

During a 1976 presidential debate against Jimmy Carter, President Gerald Ford declared, “There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe.”

The first of three Ford-Carter presidential debates in 1976
White House Photo/National Archives
The first of three Ford-Carter presidential debates in 1976

Max Frankel, the moderator, didn’t seem to know how to respond. The Soviet Union undeniably dominated Eastern Europe at the time. Even though Ford’s campaign tried to step back the comments, the damage was done and Governor Carter went on to become President Carter.

Most surreal moment

In 2007, a debate co-hosted by CNN and Youtube presented the candidates with a questioner that no one saw coming. His name was Billiam, and he was a snowman.

The debate featured pre-taped questions projected on a screen in the auditorium. Anderson Cooper introduced the question, and a snowman appeared on screen.

“Hello Democratic candidates,” Billiam said in a man’s falsetto, his stop motion mouth moving between two positions. “I have been growing concerned that global warming – the single most important issue to the snowmen of this country – is being neglected. As president, what will you do to ensure that my son will live a full and happy life?”

Rep. Dennis Kucinich had the pleasure of answering first. He didn’t win the nomination.