Televised presidential debates: Images and substance
By Brian Hanrahan, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
Televised debates have been held in nine presidential elections before this years, and perhaps the abrasions of time have winnowed all those words and pictures down to a few recollections: Richard Nixon in need of a shave; Ronald Reagan asking, “Are you better off than you were four years ago?; Michael Dukakis looking short; George Bush the elder glancing at his watch. But are those distant memories any different from what the collective conscience could recall from the debates even immediately after they were held?
Photo: Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy during their fourth televised debate in 1960.(Associated Press)
1960:Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy held the first televised presidential debates -- four in all, the first on Sept. 26, the last on Oct. 21.
What you might remember: Viewers of the first debate thought Nixon (who recently had been ill) looked sweaty and needed a shave, while Kennedy appeared handsome and confident. One study posited that television viewers thought Kennedy won the first debate, while radio listeners not swayed by images -- gave the edge to Nixon.
What you might have forgotten: Quemoy and Matsu, two islands near mainland China that were (and still are) controlled by Taiwan. Nixon and Kennedy spent a great deal of time jousting over the strategic importance of the islands. (Associated Press)
1976: After 1960, no debates were held in the next three presidential elections. But they returned in 1976, when Democrat Jimmy Carter faced off with Republican President Gerald Ford. The first event (pictured here, and the first to be televised in color) was held in Philadelphia.
What you might remember: In the second debate, Ford stated: There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe, and there never will be under a Ford administration.... I dont believe that the Romanians consider themselves dominated by the Soviet Union. I dont believe that the Poles consider themselves dominated by the Soviet Union. That statement surprised many Americans not to mention Romanians and Poles and helped erode the perceived advantage in foreign policy that Ford held over Carter, a former governor of Georgia.
What you might have forgotten: A technical glitch at the first debate in Philadelphia caused the sound to go dead. Carter and Ford remained onstage for nearly half an hour while the problem was fixed. (Associated Press)
1980:Jimmy Carter got the best of Ford in 1976, but things were different in 1980, when the incumbent went up against former California governor and former movie actor Ronald Reagan.
What you might remember: Reagan summing up the debate this way: Next Tuesday all of you will go to the polls, will stand there in the polling place and make a decision. I think when you make that decision, it might be well if you would ask yourself, are you better off than you were four years ago?
What you might have forgotten: A month before Carter and Reagan met, Reagan debated independent candidate John Anderson, a former congressman from Illinois. (Associated Press)
1984: For the third election in a row, a challenger tried to oust an incumbent president. Walter Mondale, however, could not do to Ronald Reagan what Reagan and Carter had done previously.
What you might remember: Reagan was 73 at the time, and some Americans wondered if he was still up to the job. In the second debate with Mondale, Reagan confronted the issue with a joke: I want you to know that also I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponents youth and inexperience. The camera then pulled back and viewers could see Mondale laughing, which helped reinforce the sense that Reagan had won it right there.
What you might have forgotten: Reagan didnt do well in the first debate; Mondales surprise showing against a popular incumbent gave his campaign a boost. (United Press International)
1988: The image of George H.W. Bush towering over his Democratic opponent, Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis, might be the second-most notable contrast in debate history (after the first Nixon-Kennedy debate).
What you might remember: At the start of the second meeting held at UCLAs Pauley Pavilion -- CNN newsman Bernard Shaw asked Dukakis, an opponent of the death penalty, one of the more shocking questions in debate history: Governor, if [your wife] Kitty Dukakis were raped and murdered, would you favor an irrevocable death penalty for the killer? Dukakis bland response sealed his fate in the general election.
What you might have forgotten: Just about everything else in the two debates. (Lennox McLendon / Associated Press)
1992: Three candidates participated in the debates, another first. President George H.W. Bush shared the stage with Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton and Texas businessman Ross Perot.
What you might remember: In the second debate, held at the University of Richmond in Virginia, undecided voters asked the questions. One woman, apparently meaning to ask how the recession had affected the candidates lives, instead used the term national debt: How has the national debt personally affected each of your lives? When it was Bushs turn to answer, his halting reply helped paint him as out of touch with ordinary Americans. It didn’t help when he also was seen checking his watch, leading some people to think he was eager to leave.
What you might have forgotten: How much of a wild card Perot was. His inclusion on the stage helped elevate, by comparison, the credibility of an unknown governor from Arkansas who was trying to unseat a man who had been vice president or president for nearly 12 years. (Marcy Nighswander / Associated Press)
1996: Republican Bob Dole tried everything in his attempt to defeat Bill Clinton, a popular incumbent. Dole resigned from the Senate so he could run his campaign; he pointed out ethics problems in the Clinton administration; and he turned his trademark wit on the president, calling him “the great exaggerator.” Dole also said: "... When it comes to bridges, I want a bridge to the future. I also want a bridge to the truth.”
What you might remember: Like Reagan in 1984, Dole was 73 years old during the election season. In the second debate, after Dole answered a question about his age, Clinton said: “I can only tell you that I don’t think Sen. Dole is too old to be president. It’s the age of his ideas that I question.”
What you might have forgotten: At the beginning of the first debate, Dole gave the nation a baseball playoff game score: “I thank you very much. ... Let me first give you a sports update. The Braves, one; the Cardinals, nothing, early on.” (Mike Nelson / Associated Press)
2000: Vice President Al Gore and Texas Gov. George W. Bush held three debates. Gore was criticized for, at times, sighing audibly during Bush’s answers and rolling his eyes.
What you might remember: The word “lockbox,” but only if you watched the first meeting. Gore used it seven times in that event, then didn’t use it all in the next two sessions.
What you might have forgotten: How much conditions can change in just eight years. In answering the first question of the first debate, both candidates talked about what they would do with the nation’s budget surplus.(Don Emmert / AFP)