By RICHARD S. DUNHAM
New York Times News Service
Most presidential debates are lost to history. But a few moments have been locked into our memories. Here are 10 of the most intriguing moments in the 52-year history of televised presidential debates:
1. Richard Nixon, sick and sweaty, looks bad even though he sounds good, 1960. The debate that made televised debates famous. Radio listeners thought that Vice President Richard Nixon was the better debater in the first of four campaign debates. Television viewers — and there were many more of them — thought Sen. John F. Kennedy was the superior communicator. That’s because radio listeners could not see the Republican candidate, who was battling an illness and looked uncomfortable and occasionally shifty. Historians say the debate was a critical factor in Kennedy’s narrow victory.
2. Gerald Ford says Poland is free from Soviet domination, 1976. The biggest gaffe of presidential debates came when Gerald Ford declared that Eastern Europe in general (and Poland specifically) was not dominated by the Soviet Union. Polish-Americans, and millions of other Americans from the so-called “captive nations” of Eastern Europe begged to differ.
3. Ronald Reagan asks if you’re better off now than you were four years ago, 1980. They’ve been asking this question ever since, but Ronald Reagan did it first and best. Since almost nobody thought the U.S. was better off economically than it was when Jimmy Carter became president in January 1977, the ex-California governor’s query resonated with dissatisfied Americans.
4. Reagan’s great comeback: “There you go again.” Desperate to dent Reagan’s political armor, a flailing Carter tried to portray his conservative opponent as an extremist who would end Social Security and Medicare as we knew them and might just provoke a nuclear conflagration. Reagan disarmed the Democratic incumbent with another one of his signature one-liners.
5. Reagan’s quip defuses the age issue, 1984. Reagan performed poorly in the first presidential debate of 1984 and polls showed Walter Mondale narrowing the Republican incumbent’s big lead. The Gipper stopped Mondale’s surge with a joke about age: “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.” Mondale laughed but later told his wife Eleanor that the quip had sealed Reagan’s victory.
6. CNN’s Bernard Shaw ties Michael Dukakis in knots with a hypothetical question about the rape and murder of the candidate’s wife. In a 1988 debate in Los Angeles, Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis answered a question about the possible rape and murder of his wife Kitty by repeating his opposition to the death penalty. His analytical answer didn’t connect with viewers.
7. George H.W. Bush is flummoxed in a town hall debate by a citizens’ question about people having trouble making ends meet, 1992. A woman at the debate in Richmond asked the Republican incumbent how the nation’s economic troubles had affected him personally. Bush appeared stumped by the question and eventually talked about how the economy was improving.
8. Al Gore sighs, rolls his eyes. At a debate in Boston, Al Gore’s body language ended up more famous than his words. He sighed, he rolled his eyes, he even invaded George W. Bush’s space at one point. The immature behavior marred an otherwise strong debate performance.
9. Al Gore’s mention of a “lock box” in 2000 was so widely parodied that he even made a joke of it himself in a Saturday Night Life spoof.
Al Gore assured voters that Social Security money wasn’t going to be spent for other purposes if he were elected president in 2000. So he invented the concept of a “lock box” to protect Social Security from rampaging lawmakers. After George W. Bush became president, Congress and the president once again raided Social Security to pay for tax cuts and government spending.
10. Technical difficulties mar 1976 presidential debate in Philadelphia. About eight minutes before the end of the 1976 debate at the Walnut Street Theater, the audio feed from the bicentennial encounter in Philadelphia. Television anchors tried to fill the void — awkwardly. The candidates eventually stopped talking and stood at their podiums — awkwardly.