Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Famous Moments in Political Debates

Political debates have gotten very scripted, orchestrated and somewhat predictable in recent decades. Certain questions and topics are givens to be raised, so carefully planned responses, and gestures, can be rehearsed by politicians. The power of visual image grew as more people tuned in to the tube.

In the famous 1960 U.S. presidential debate, a pale Richard Nixon, sporting a five-o'clock shadow, faced a tanned, healthy looking, and telegenic John Kennedy. It's been said that radio listeners had a different perception of the debate than television viewers. Kennedy's slim victory could have owed to the televised candidate contrast.

That debate has so frequently been mentioned that it has likely influenced the "production" side of debating more than any other factor. As we know, a tidy, confident, and stately appearance has become a major factor in how the public perceives or rates the performance of candidates. Still, it must be combined with carefully worded responses, the kind that listeners "want to hear". A neatly groomed debater can look and act the part of leader but words have to match the image - and that does not always happen as we will see.

In the 1988 U.S. Vice-presidential debate, Democratic Senator Lloyd Bentsen delivered a stinging jab to Republican candidate Dan Quayle.

In his campaign, Quayle had been put on the defensive for his political inexperience. Leading up to a live televised debate, he had been known to compare himself to John Kennedy, to send the message that relative youth in politics is not necessessarily bad, but can represent vigor, promise and talent, as Kennedy did. (Bentsen had reportedly heard these comparisons before, and may well have had his sail-bursting response ready before the tv debate.)

When asked by moderator Tom Brokaw about his qualifications for acting as President,

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

Bentsen's response: "Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy: I knew Jack Kennedy; Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine.

"Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy,"

(A lot of audience shouts and applause followed.)

Quayle: That was really uncalled for Senator.

Bentsen: You are the one that was making the comparison, Senator — and I'm one who knew him well. And frankly I think you are so far apart in the objectives you choose for your country that I did not think the comparison was well-taken.

Dan Quayle dropped the Kennedy comparison for the rest of the campaign. The moment was replayed over and over, and was raw resource material for comedians.

One joke went "What did Marilyn Quayle say to Dan Quayle after making love? 'Senator, you are no Jack Kennedy.'"

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A couple of Reaganisms
What an ambitious person Ronald Reagan was. He studied economics and sociology at College, was a radio announcer, acted in 53 films, was president of the screen actors guild, was governor of California, and re-elected in 1970, then became President in 1980.

In his quest for Presidential re-election in 1984, he had to face Democratic candidate Walter Mondale in a live televised debate. At 74, most people would have experienced nearly ten years of retirement, but this man was applying for the mother of all jobs, and his competition was 56 years old. In the debate, Reagan's actor skills would serve him well when he smoothly, and good-naturedly quipped to Walter Mondale,

"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."

Reagan was seen as being sharp, calm, and upbeat, which endeared him to Americans for two terms as President.

In the 1980 debate with President Carter, Reagan asked,

"Are you better off now than you were four years ago?"

The timing of the question was deadly for Carter, as American hostages were still not released by Iranian hostage takers at that point, and under Carter's Presidency. That question seemed to have struck a contemplative chord with voters.

*   *   *

Given Premier Williams recent remark about Liberal leader Gerry Reid's so-called "scowl", for tonight's debate, Williams might joke that Reid take a tip from former Presidental candidate Bob Dole. In 1996, Bob Dole insisted that his wife be visible to him at all times, because "her job was to remind him to smile."
*   *   *

It is rare for a "knock-out punch" to be landed in a political debate, but that is what happened in Canada's 1984 election debate between PC Brian Mulrooney and Liberal John Turner. The knock-out punch is when a quip decisively turns the election in one candidate's favor.

At this point, the Liberals had been in power, for what seemed like forever. Pierre Trudeau had retired from Politics in 1984, and John Turner had manned the post that year. Trudeau and the Liberals had been in power since 1968, with the exception of a brief PC Joe Clark 9 month PM stint, beginning in June, 1979.

Mulrooney was young, fresh, and hungry for the big job. During the 1984 debate, John Turner was drilled on the issue of patronage, by Mulrooney. Turner's response that he had to rubber-stamp Trudeau's patronage appointments, had raised the already temperature-rising debate to a trigger point, when Mulrooney responded with,

"You had a choice sir. You had a choice."

Mulrooney's expression was with such conviction and strength that it made Turner look weak. Mulrooney went on to win the election.

There may not be a crippling blow tonight - then again, there are plenty of issues that the opposition can take to the premier, and really drill him on. Likewise, the Premier, who is perched high, is positioned to sling some shots while affording some support loss.

Election debates are usually interesting, and historical in any event. Best wishes to all three leaders, Gerry Reid, Lorraine Michael, and Danny Williams. May they perform to the best of their abilities, and may the exchange be for the betterment of the people of Newfoundland and Labrador.


Table Mountains said...

if the question to me was,,,"Are you better off now than you were four years ago?",,, my answer would be "No." the province might be financially but many in my occupation of home care are not.hopefully tonight the topic of home care will come up in the debate.

charles said...

That's a good question for tonight! Yes the province is financially, but who and how many Newfoundlanders and Labradorians (in and out of province) can say they are better off? Numbers can tell the story, but the few in positions of power and wealth can push the concept too.

charles said...

Did you notice that at the end of the election debate, that Gerry Reid did ask that question in his closing remarks - "Are you better off now than you were fours years ago?"