The presidential debates of yesteryear were stolid affairs—often to the point of dullness. They were heavier on policy and lighter on “gotcha” sound bites than today’s debates—like the Republican debate scheduled for Wednesday night—promise to be. They were presented on simple sound stages adorned in muted colors. The news networks tended not to build special sets for them or create garish graphics. Often, there were no audiences save for the crew. Just watch a few minutes of this 1988 Republican primary debate compared with this year’s first Republican primary debate and it’s obvious: much has changed in the last quarter century.
But that doesn’t mean yesterday’s debates didn’t have their dramatic moments. The first televised presidential debate, between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon in 1960, is still among the most famous. It’s often said that it lost Nixon the election: On TV, he sweated heavily and appeared shifty, while Kennedy was handsome, calm, and poised.
It would be a long 16 years before there was another general-election presidential debate—not so much because of Nixon’s poor performance, but because federal equal-time provisions would have forced the inclusion of all comers, including fringe candidates. By 1976, a workaround was found, and we’ve had regular debates ever since, from primary season to the general election (and vice-presidential candidates get their time to shine, too).
Here are some notable moments in presidential-election debate history between then and now: