An instructive VP debate moment: ‘Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy’

DANVILLE, Ky. -- There is, let’s face it, just one truly memorable moment in the annals of vice presidential debates. That was in 1988, when Sen. Lloyd Bentsen told Sen. Dan Quayle that the younger man was no John F. Kennedy.

As we all know, that moment -- perhaps the all-time zinger in any debate -- is why Bentsen went on to a distinguished career as vice president under President Michael Dukakis.

Or not.

Consider the circumstances: A young member of Congress, who looked even younger than his 40-something years, going up against a vastly more experienced candidate, a longtime member of the Senate in his 60s.

If that sounds a lot like Rep. Paul Ryan and Vice President Joe Biden ... well, it’s only a partially apt comparison. Ryan, at 42, is just a year older than Quayle was in 1988. He has two more years in Congress (14 versus 12), but Quayle had served nearly eight years in the Senate, a far more elite body than the House. Then again, Ryan has been much more of a political force in Congress than Quayle ever was. And it just has to be said: Ryan probably knows how to spell potato. (Quayle famously corrected an elementary school student’s spelling, changing it to potatoe.)

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Both Biden and Bentsen were among the youngest people ever elected to Congress (Biden was 29 when he was elected to the Senate in 1972; Bentsen was 27 when he was elected to the House in 1948). In 1988, Bentsen was 67; Biden turns 70 next month. But, as with Ryan and Quayle, Biden had a substantially more illustrious career in Congress than Bentsen, and of course has served nearly four years as vice president. So both candidates this year are arguably stronger.

So, about that zinger.

Quayle devoted most of a chapter to it in his memoir, “Standing Firm.” It’s a reflective and instructive account in which he admitted that, yes, it was probably a huge mistake for him to have compared himself to Kennedy. In fact, he said he was specifically counseled in debate prep to avoid such a comparison. And, he said, there was one general rule pounded into him: “Don’t make a mistake. If you feel unsure of an answer, just fall back on old rhetoric. In other words, don’t trust yourself.”

“This,” he said, “was the mistake I made throughout the campaign.”

Quayle insisted that the comparison to Kennedy was apt. “I only brought it up to make a single, valid comparison about our experience in Congress,” he wrote. “Because I was young and such a new face on the national scene, my opponents were arguing that I lacked the qualifications for the vice-presidency. ... The comparison of myself and Kennedy on this point was relevant, because by 1960, he had served six years in the House and eight in the Senate, almost exactly what I had, and he was running for the presidency itself.”

Of course, years alone don’t make someone qualified for national office. And even if they did, relevance isn’t always relevant in a political debate.

In Quayle’s recounting, the problem was that the question of his experience kept coming up over and over. On the third time, he couldn’t hold back. He was out of other answers.

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Quayle: “I have as much experience in the Congress as Jack Kennedy did when he sought the presidency.”

Bentsen: “Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.”

You can almost wince along with Quayle as he recalls the moment: “I, stung by its excess, could only more or less mutter what I (and many others) thought: that it was uncalled for.”

It was, as Quayle ruefully noted, widely viewed as a knockout punch, endlessly replayed and commented on. The “lingering image,” he conceded, was that of “a deer caught in the headlights.” He insisted that, taken on its whole, he actually won the debate, but he’s wise enough to admit that whether or not that’s true, it mattered not a whit.

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And the upshot? How big a bounce in the polls did the Democratic ticket of Bentsen and Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis get in the race against Quayle and Vice President George H.W. Bush? “The debate, for all its hoopla, didn’t really move those numbers at all,” Quayle said. “We maintained our lead and we headed into the final lap.”

That may be the ultimate takeaway from the Bentsen-Quayle debate: Voters don’t go into the booth to elect a vice president. They elect a president.

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