Six decades after John F. Kennedy’s debates with Richard Nixon, live televised meetings between presidential candidates have become a central feature of the US election.
Not all of them have experienced significant moments; The original Kennedy-Nixon duel remained in collective memory not because of a single line, but because the Republican nominee spent much of it edgy and visibly sweaty next to his cool young rival.
But in the election since, there has been a constant supply of bizarre, hilarious and at times disturbing incidents filmed for posterity. With too much to count, here’s a simple selection.
Age before beauty
In 1980, Ronald Reagan led two debates against outgoing President Jimmy Carter. He had a particularly good time in the second, delivering his classic line “here we go again” and a moving closing monologue in which he asked the audience if he was better than four years ago. (As Mr. Carter found out in November, their verdict was no.)
Four years later, as he fought for re-election, the elderly president stumbled in his first debate with Walter Mondale, looking confused about the basic facts and stumbling over words. Asked about this during the following debate, he reversed the scenario: “I will not make age a stake in this campaign,” he smiled. “I will not exploit the youth and inexperience of my adversary for political ends.”
Twelve years later, the age question would be turned in favor of a Democrat, when Bill Clinton was asked about 73-year-old Bob Dole. “I don’t think Senator Dole is too old to be president,” Cinton remarked. “It’s the age of his ideas that I question.”
The greatest of all time
Perhaps the biggest debating comeback of all time belongs to 1988 running mate Lloyd Bentsen, who slapped George HW Bush’s notoriously incompetent running mate Dan Quayle for comparing himself to John F. Kennedy in a response to the experience.
“Senator,” Bentsen intoned, “I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you are not Jack Kennedy. “
“It was unwarranted,” Quayle said. Nobody agreed.
Bush vs. Gore
The 2000 Kafkaesque election in Florida is mostly remembered after election day, but before that, a series of bizarre debates left Democrat Al Gore badly damaged.
In his first confrontation with George W. Bush, he pointedly sighed and made contemptuous faces as his rival spoke. And in their now traditional town hall-style traveling microphone session, Mr. Gore made the bizarre decision to approach Mr. Bush as he spoke and rise above him like an obelisk. Mr. Bush simply stopped halfway, looked at his rival, and nodded cheekily.
Sometimes even disposable lines can take a life of their own. So in 2012 Mitt Romney bragged about trying to hire more women when he was governor of Massachusetts.
“We made a concerted effort to go out and find women who had backgrounds that could be qualified to become members of our cabinet,” he recalled. “I went to a number of women’s groups and said, ‘Can you help us find people?’ and they brought us whole binders full of women. “
The tin-eared phrase “binders full of women” had become a meme even before the debate was over, and it survives as a shorthand for spelling out diversity to this day.
The Hillary Clinton Trials
The former first lady, senator and secretary of state was a veteran of the presidential debate when Donald Trump beat her: three debates against him, nine against Bernie Sanders and the other 2016 Democratic candidates, and more than 20 in the 2008 marathon competition.
During this year’s debate in New Hampshire, a moderator asked her to explain why voters found her less “likable” than Barack Obama. “Well, that hurts me,” she replied to applause. “But I’ll try to keep going… I don’t think I’m that bad.”
“You are quite sympathetic, Hillary,” Mr. Obama said with a dismissive look.
A few days later, she beat him in a primary which was to put her out of the race.
In 2016, however, she faced a character assassination of an entirely different caliber. The second of her two debates with Mr. Trump saw her rival disturbingly harassing her around the room – and worse. “It’s just awfully good that someone with Donald Trump’s temper is not responsible for the law in our country,” she said during a discussion of fact-checking and lies.
“Because you would be in jail,” replied Mr. Trump – putting in place four years of insistence that his rivals are illegally conspiring to destroy him.
With up to 20 contestants now routinely – and sometimes inexplicably – tossing their hats in the ring with every round, the primary debates have given rise to all manner of unexpected mishaps.
In 2012, Rick Perry forgot his own campaign promise to abolish three ministries (“What was the third over there?… Oops.”); in 2016, Marco Rubio inexplicably repeated the same answer four times even as Chris Christie accused him of being a robot, while another debate that year turned into a barely understated quarrel over size. of the penis.
But for some candidates, 2020 has been even more difficult. In February, Elizabeth Warren dealt one of the most devastating blows ever unleashed by one candidate on another: a one-minute monologue dismantling Michael Bloomberg.
“Listen, I will support the Democratic candidate,” she said. “But understand this: Democrats are taking a huge risk if we just substitute one arrogant billionaire for another.” She lost the nomination, but got credit for helping destroy Mr Bloomberg’s campaign almost before it started.