From the archives of the Miller Center, a historical institute at the University of Virginia, come seven memorable moments from the last 50 years of presidential debates.
1. 1960 — Nixon v. JFK: “If you know the President, that was probably a facetious remark”
The debate between Vice President Richard Nixon and Sen. John F. Kennedy, held in Chicago on Sept. 26, 1960, was the first ever televised presidential debate — nearly 70 million Americans tuned in to watch. Here, moderator Howard Smith of CBS News quoted Nixon’s boss — President Eisenhower — telling the press that he couldn’t think of one instance in which he ever adopted one of Nixon’s major ideas. “If you give me a week I might think of one,” Eisenhower had said. Nixon stumbled. “If you know the President, that was probably a facetious remark,” he managed.
2. 1976 — Ford v. Carter: “There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe”
During the second debate between President Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter — then a former Georgia Governor — Ford botched a line about Soviet influence in Eastern Europe. “There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe,” said Ford. The New York Times’s Max Frankel had to pause to clarify — Ford’s answer was at complete odds with the reality of the Cold War. “As a matter of fact, I visited Poland, Yugoslavia and Romania, to make certain,” continued Ford. Jimmy Carter came out with the win that year.
3. 1980 — Reagan v. Carter: “There You Go Again”
When Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter faced off four years later, on Oct. 28, 1980, Carter challenged Reagan on his stance on Medicare. Reagan fired back with his now-famous line, “There you go again.” The quip got laughs from the audience, and Reagan was able to dismiss Carter’s serious, detailed attacks with one line and a smile. The debate, held at the Public Music Hall in Cleveland, was the second and last between Reagan and Carter.
4. 1980 — Reagan v. Carter: “Are You Better Off?”
Also in the October 1980 debate, Reagan gave what is perhaps the most famous, and most referenced, line in the history of presidential debates. “Are you better off then you were four years ago,” he asked his audience — a total of 80.6 million television viewers. If the answer is ‘yes,’ said Reagan, then “your choice is very obvious as to who you’ll vote for. If you don’t agree…then I could suggest another choice that you have.”
5. 1984 — Reagan v. Mondale: “I will not make age an issue of this campaign”
When moderator Henry Trewhitt, diplomatic correspondent for The Baltimore Sun asked President Reagan whether or not his age should be a worry for voters — it was, said Trewhitt, an issue that had “been lurking out there” — Reagan charmed the audience again. “Not at all, Mr. Trewhitt,” he said, “and 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 opponent’s youth and inexperience.” The debate, held on Oct. 21, 1984, in Kansas City, helped Reagan win his second term.
6. 1992 — Clinton v. Bush v. Perot: “I was opposed to the war, but I love my country”
George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and Ross Perot, took the stage in 1992 for the first of three presidential debates. At a time when military experience was an important and even crucial criterion for presidential candidates, Bush was fiercely critical of Clinton for taking part in anti-Vietnam War protests — “it’s wrong to demonstrate against your own country,” he said. In response, Clinton made a modern distinction: “You were wrong to attack my patriotism. I was opposed to the war, but I love my country.”
7. 1996 — Clinton v. Dole: “We are better off than we were four years ago”
In the first presidential debate of his re-election campaign, President Bill Clinton invoked Reagan’s famous debate moment in his opening statement, turning the question into an affirmation. “We are better off than we were four years ago. Let’s keep it going.” When asked by moderator Jim Lehrer whether or not he agreed, Bob Dole cited slow economic growth, rising bankruptcies, and stagnant wages. The better-off question has become a common refrain on the Romney campaign trail.
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To be completely fair to Ford, he was right to say that Yugoslavia was not in the Russian sphere of influence, and that Romania stood out in its relations with the West. Tito broke with Stalin in the late 40s and never came back. Titoism was considered as big an heresy in Soviet Russia as Trotskyism. Russian troops left Romania in the 50s and Ceausescu had good relations with the US. Now of course, this doesn’t fit neatly in the stereotypes one has to bandy in presidential debates.
And this certainly doesn’t mean Ford should have won.
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