10 Memorable Moments in Presidential Debate History

7 minute read

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:

The Blooper Heard Round the World

As soon as the debates started back up, so, too, did the “gaffes,” beginning with President Gerald Ford declaring boldly that there was “no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe” at a time when every Eastern European country was securely locked behind the Iron Curtain.

TIME was as amazed as everyone else, calling Ford’s statement “The Blooper Heard Round the World.” Ford clearly knew that the Soviets dominated Eastern Europe, but he was trying to make a rhetorical point and simply blew it — and went on to blow the election.

The Age Issue

Some observers in 1984 worried that Ronald Reagan might have grown too old to continue in the presidency. His quip during a debate with Walter Mondale is widely seen as having defused this concern. “I will not make age an issue of this campaign,” he said. “I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.” Even Mondale laughed.

All the Emotion

In 1988, CNN’s Bernard Shaw asked Democratic contender Michael Dukakis a bizarre question, and elicited a (politically) terrible answer. “Mr. Dukakis,” Shaw asked, “if Kitty Dukakis [the candidate’s wife] were raped and murdered, would you favor an irrevocable death penalty?” This could have been a great time for Dukakis to shed some of his image as a remote, passionless technocrat. He could have said that, of course, as a husband, his instinct would be for revenge, but that we live in a democratic society, and personal revenge has no place in our laws. Instead, he gave a passionless, technocratic answer: “No, I don’t, Bernard,” he said, “and I think you know that I’ve opposed the death penalty during all of my life. I don’t see any evidence that it’s a deterrent and I think there are better and more effective ways to deal with violent crime.”

TIME’s Walter Shapiro wrote: “Dukakis mustered all the emotion of a time-and- temperature recording.”

No Jack Kennedy

Sometimes, the vice-presidential debates have yielded the more memorable moments in a given election year. Such was the case when Dukakis’ running mate Lloyd Benson tore into Dan Quayle, who was George H.W. Bush’s running mate.

Quayle, young and fair-haired, was often compared to John Kennedy (usually by Republican operatives) despite his being widely considered to be a bit of a dim bulb (an assessment that was in fact quite unfair). Quayle made the mistake of invoking JFK during the debate, giving Bentson his opening. “I served with Jack Kennedy,” Bentson said. “I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.” The audience erupted, and in the next day’s papers, “deer in the headlights” was the most-often-used phrase to describe Quayle’s reaction.

The Humblebrag of ’92

In 1992, Ross Perot’s prickly demeanor (“Are you gonna let me finish?”) got a lot of attention during the debates. But it was his running mate, Adm. James Stockdale, whose performance has proven the most memorable. In trying to be self-deprecating about his lack of political experience (actually sort of a humblebrag), Stockdale blurted our, “Who am I? Why am I here?”

Since he already had a reputation (whether deserved or not) as a confused old man, this soundbite was set in concrete. And just as people sometimes confuse Tina Fey’s takeoffs on Sarah Palin for Palin herself (it was Fey, not Palin, who said “I can see Russia from my house!”), people tend to remember Phil Hartman’s portrayal of Stockdale on Saturday Night Live a lot better than they remember Stockdale himself.

The Nod

By 2000, it had been eight years since a national debate yielded any real drama (Clinton vs. Dole was a snooze of an election). Most of the best bits of 2000 came from Al Gore, who memorably sighed a lot at statements from his opponent, George W. Bush. But the best moment might have been when Gore at one point stood up, seemingly to intimidate Bush, and Bush simply nodded hello at him and continued what he was saying.

Getting Personal

In 2004, it was once again the vice presidential debate that yielded the most memorable moment, when Dick Cheney was asked about gay rights. His daughter, a lesbian, wasn’t mentioned — that is, until after Cheney was finished answering, and his opponent, John Edwards, brought her up. “I think the vice president and his wife love their daughter,” he said. “I think they love her very much. And you can’t have anything but respect for the fact that they’re willing to talk about the fact that they have a gay daughter, the fact that they embrace her. It’s a wonderful thing. And there are millions of parents like that who love their children, who want their children to be happy.” Cheney and his wife Lynne both later said they were furious at Edwards for mentioning their daughter.

Likable Enough

In 2008, a common political question was whether Hillary Clinton was “likable.” In a primary debate, Barack Obama answered that question: “You’re likable enough, Hillary.” This was widely interpreted (especially among Clinton supporters) as rude and condescending. But it also could have been a genuine response.

Joe Kidding

Before her debate with vice-presidential contender Joe Biden, Sarah Palin asked her opponent if she could call him Joe. Of course, he said. That set her up for a canned line later in the debate: “Say it ain’t so, Joe.” Palin did much better in the debate than many people were expecting, possibly in part due to Biden being very careful to not insult her or otherwise seem cruel.


In recent years, primary debates — or at least debate moments — have been getting as much if not more attention than general-election debates. Perhaps the most memorable moment of 2012 came when Republican candidate Rick Perry couldn’t remember the third government agency he wanted to eliminate. He paused, he stumbled, he finally said “oops.” Perry recently became the first GOP candidate to drop out of the 2016 race, and some pundits have said that his “oops” moment might have destroyed his political career.

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