Memorable Moments

from Presidential Debates

The presidential debates are intended to be a forum to discuss the issues of the day—matters of substance. But just as candidates are personalities as well as ideas, a debate can turn on a smaller bit of style or inattention. In the list that follows are some of those notable defining moments in which a candidate makes a gaffe or turns a rhetorical flourish, and that single moment—rather than the broader and more complex features of the debate or the discussion of the issues—becomes the whole story.

Nixon sweats

TV debateThe first televised presidential debate took place in Chicago on September 26, 1960. Vice President Richard Nixon, recovering from the flu, looked pale and sweaty. His Democratic opponent, Senator John F. Kennedy, had just come from campaigning in California and looked tanned and vital. Listeners to the radio broadcast thought Nixon won the debate, but television viewers gave the win to Kennedy.

Ford’s blunder

TV debateIn the second debate between President Gerald Ford and challenger Jimmy Carter in October 1976, Ford said that “Poland is no longer under communist domination.” The audience gasped, and the remark became the big news of the debate, if not the big news of the entire 1976 debate series.

The Reagan moment

TV debateIn a 1980 Republican New Hampshire primary debate, the expenses of which were paid by candidate Ronald Reagan, the moderator tried to prevent Reagan from making an opening announcement by asking that Reagan’s mike be cut off. Reagan retorted, “I am paying for this microphone!” The incident helped solidify Reagan’s public image as firm and decisive and marked the beginning of his rise in the national polls. Reagan would later say: “I may have won the debate, the primary—and the nomination—right there.”

I knew Jack

TV debateIn the 1988 vice-presidential debate, held in Omaha on October 5, Senator Lloyd Bentsen delivered what are probably the most famous lines in the history of presidential debates. Bentsen was facing fellow Senator Dan Quayle, whose relative youth had become an issue in the campaign. In an answer defending his qualifications, Quayle stated that he had as much Congressional experience as John Kennedy had when he was running for president. Bentsen’s reply: “Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy, I knew Jack Kennedy, Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.”

And time watches you

TV debateThe second debate between President George H. W. Bush and Democratic challenger Bill Clinton was a town hall event on October 15, 1992. As the moderator fielded a question from the audience, the president looked at his watch, apparently impatient for the evening to end. The action suggested that Bush was distant and out of touch with ordinary people.

A sigh is not just a sigh

TV debateIn the first presidential debate of the 2000 election, Vice President Al Gore audibly and repeatedly sighed while the Republican candidate George W. Bush responded to questions. Those sighs captured as much attention from commentators as the substance of the debate and left the impression that Gore was disrespectful and condescending.

The presidential scowl

TV debateSimilarly, after the first debate between President Bush and Senator John Kerry on September 30, 2004, coverage focused on Bush’s apparent annoyance with Kerry and numerous scowls and negative facial expressions. Bush referred to the criticism in their second debate, joking at one point about one of Kerry’s remarks, “That answer made me want to scowl.”


The Commission on Presidential Debates has an extensive collection of information on presidential and other debates from 1858 to the present, including transcripts of debates since 1960. Video is available from the Commisssion upon request.

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Newton N. Minow and Craig L. LaMay
Inside the Presidential Debates: Their Improbable Past and Promising Future
Foreword by Vartan Gregorian
©2008, 238 pages, 31 tables
Cloth $22.50 ISBN: 978-0-226-53041-3 (ISBN-10: 0-226-53041-8)

For information on purchasing the book—from bookstores or here online—please go to the webpage for Inside the Presidential Debates.

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