| 10 | Moments in the History of Debate


The office watches the Nixon Vs. Kennedy Debate on the television series, “Mad Men”.

1960 — Kennedy vs. Nixon: First TV debate
Debates enter the TV age
 

Just having Kennedy on the same stage as an experienced vice president made a difference for JFK because he could hold his own with Nixon. But then, of course, when it was listened to on the radio, it made it seem like it was pretty equal, and even some people giving an edge to Nixon. But he looked so terrible. His makeup was bad. He wasn’t feeling well. He looked sallow, He looked scornful. And people just reacted to that image of a vigorous, young Kennedy, and an almost sick-looking Nixon. And from then on, somehow JFK became a figure.

 

1976 — Carter vs. Ford: No Soviet domination of Eastern Europe?
Ford: ‘There is no Soviet domination’
 

Ford had done well in the first debate, but in the second debate he was asked a question about Soviet domination of Eastern Europe. And he answered it incomprehensibly. There was already a perception, a vulnerability, that he wasn’t intelligent. And then this thing just got parodied, just got talked about, and became a huge event. When ordinary people watched that debate, they didn’t feel the Ford had screwed up. But when it was pointed out, that he didn’t understand what was happening in the Cold War in Eastern Europe, then suddenly they had shifted their minds, and he seemed much worse than it had seemed at that moment.

1980 — Reagan vs. Carter: ‘There you go again’
Reagan: ‘There you go again’
 

In 1980, Carter was primed to go after Reagan about his record, especially on Medicare. He was going on the offensive: ‘You did this! You voted this way! You said that!’ And Reagan, just with humor and subtlety, said, ‘There you go again.’ And it somehow relaxed Reagan and it took the offensive away from Carter. It was a brilliant answer to a really serious critique of Reagan’s past that might have been troubling for him.

 

1980 — Reagan vs. Carter: ‘Are you better off now than you were four years ago?’
Reagan: ‘Are you better off?’

There was no more brilliant closing than Reagan’s ‘Are you better off now than you were four years ago?’ What it did was to make people think, ‘Yes. That’s what’s happened to me. My economic life, my family life, my working life, has been hurt by the economy over these last four years.’ And once they realized that, it almost gave a poster to the entire campaign. It wasn’t just a great moment in the debate, it became a theme encapsulated in just a few sentences. And in the end saying, ‘if you are better off, then you vote for Mr. Carter. If you’re not, you do have another choice. Me,’ And at the same time, Carter gave a very weak closing statement.

 

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