President Reagan today accused Democrat Lloyd Bentsen of “a cheap shot . . . unbecoming a senator of the United States” for criticizing Republican Dan Quayle for comparing himself to John F. Kennedy during the vice presidential debate.
Michael S. Dukakis jubilantly called running mate Bentsen’s debate performance Wednesday night “a real plus” for the Democrats, and said Quayle was “extremely insecure” and “programmed beyond belief.”
Bentsen exuberantly pointed to polls suggesting that he’d won the debate, while Quayle echoed Reagan, saying, “Quite frankly, I thought (the Kennedy dressing-down) was a cheap shot.”
Vice President George Bush, asked on the campaign trail about Wednesday night’s encounter, said the 41-year-old senator from Indiana “did an outstanding job and the American people know it.”
Quayle sparked one of the sharpest exchanges of the debate when he said he had as much government experience as Kennedy, then a senator from Massachusetts, when Kennedy ran for President in 1960.
‘I Knew Jack Kennedy’
Bentsen, 67, replied: “I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.”
A stung Quayle shot back, “That was really uncalled for, senator.” Bentsen replied that it was Quayle who had made the comparison in the first place.
Reagan, posing for pictures with President Moussa Traore of Mali today, was asked by a reporter whether Quayle will be damaged by the comparison.
“No, I think that remark was a cheap shot and unbecoming a senator of the United States,” the President said. Bentsen, 67, is a U.S. senator from Texas.
Another reporter asked if Quayle hadn’t “led with his chin” in comparing himself with Kennedy.
‘Attacked ... Unfairly’
“No, the only comparison he was making was that he is being attacked, I think unfairly, on the basis of his age and his experience in government. . . . “
As White House aides ushered reporters out of the Oval Office, Reagan called them back and said he does not believe that Quayle was “trying in any way to downgrade Sen. Kennedy.”
Bentsen, asked today about that exchange in the debate, said, “What happened there was Quayle kept comparing himself to Kennedy, and he overreached himself and I got fed up with it.”
Ralph Yarborough, the liberal senator whom Bentsen defeated in a bitter 1970 Texas Democratic primary, said his old rival did the right thing when he attacked Quayle for the comparison.
“Quayle looked like a pipsqueak to compare himself to J.F.K.,” Yarborough said. “Some may think Bentsen was too rough. I think it was justified.
‘Needed to Be Dressed Down’
“I am no friend of Bentsen but I am glad Bentsen set him down. He needed to be dressed down on that.”
Geraldine Ferraro, who ran as Walter F. Mondale’s running mate in 1984 and faced Bush in a debate, said she doesn’t consider Bentsen’s comments a cheap shot. As for Quayle’s answer that he would first pray if he became President in an emergency, Ferraro said, “Not only will he be praying . . . but so would we.”
As to who won the debate, Tom Cosgrove, Texas director of the Dukakis-Bentsen campaign, said: “Even the Korean judges would have given that one to Lloyd Bentsen.”
Sen. Albert Gore (D-Tenn.) also compared the debate to a boxing match. “If this had been a boxing match, they would have had to stop the fight,” Gore said.