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Replayed Moments of Debates Can Make or Break Candidates

lloyd bentsen and dan quayle shake hands after debating

Sen. Lloyd Bentsen, left, D-Ind., and Sen. Dan Quayle, R-Texas, shook hands after their vice presidential debate in Omaha, Nebraska, on Oct. 5, 1988. (AP/Ron Edmonds)

Susan Estrich By Monday, 24 June 2024 04:06 PM EDT Current | Bio | Archive

"Pray for Jack Kennedy," I said to Bill Clinton, then the governor of Arkansas and lead "spinner" for the 1988 vice presidential debate in Omaha, Nebraska.

We had been rehearsing that week in Austin, with Rep. Dennis Eckart playing Dan Quayle, me playing moderator Judy Woodruff, and Texas Sen. Lloyd Bentsen playing himself, the Democratic vice presidential nominee. I asked Eckart/Quayle why he thought he had the experience to be president and he answered by comparing himself to John F. Kennedy.

"Does he really do that?" Bentsen asked.

Eckart was well prepared. He really does, we assured him.

"Well, with your permission," the senator responded (as ever gracious, as if he needed my permission), "if he does that in the debate, I'm going to call him on it. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. And he's no Jack Kennedy."

"Was he really a friend of yours (ever the fact-checker)?" I responded.

"B.A. (his wife) and I went to his wedding." From that moment on, we were praying for Jack Kennedy.

The rest is history. "Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy," is one of the famous lines in the lore of great debates.

It didn't win the election for his running mate, Michael Dukakis (vice presidents rarely do), but it clearly won the debate. Indeed, the post-debate polls showed Bentsen handily ahead of both Quayle and his running-mate, George H.W. Bush.

It doesn't always work out the way you plan, of course.

That same year, Bill Clinton and I had rehearsed over and over with Dukakis the answer to the "Willie Horton question" (Horton was a Black convicted murderer who had raped a white woman while on a weekend furlough program) about crime.

I can still recite the answer we rehearsed in my sleep, these many years later. It was to make clear that Dukakis was on the side of victims, not of criminals.

"I know what it's like to be the victim of crime. My brother was killed by a hit-and-run driver while on his bike, left for dead at the side of the road. My father was beaten and tied up in his medical office by thugs who robbed him, looking for drugs ..."

But that wasn't the answer he gave when moderator Bernard Shaw asked him what he would do if someone raped and killed his wife.

"Did we just lose the election?" Barry Diller leaned over and asked me as we sat in the holding room watching the debate.

There are moments in debates that get replayed constantly, that can make or break a candidate.

"Are you better off today than you were four years ago?" candidate Ronald Reagan asked in the only debate that year against incumbent Jimmy Carter. I was in Florida working for Jimmy Carter that year, and you could feel the floor cave in.

Carter's goal was to paint his challenger as a risk. Reagan handled it with aplomb ("There you go again," he said with a smile) and changed the subject. And a close race turned into a landslide.

Expectations matter.

Having portrayed Joe Biden as too old and feeble to walk and talk, Republicans are reportedly worried that he has set the bar too low. Biden has set aside time to prepare the old-fashioned way, with a team who has prepared him in the past.

Donald Trump has reportedly opted to use his rallies and interviews as his primary preparation.

The danger for Biden is that he will come across as too prepared, too scripted, that he will sound like his talking points. The danger for Trump is that he will do what he does at rallies — go entirely off script and rant and rave about what a victim he is, instead of running on the accomplishments of his first term.

And this is, after all, television, and how you look counts.

In her wonderful new book about the '60s, Doris Kearns Goodwin recounts how JFK won the first televised presidential debate with Richard Nixon if you watched it on TV; Nixon fared better on the radio.

Not a coincidence.

I heard Don Hewitt, the legendary "60 Minutes" producer who produced the debate for CBS tell the story of how he arranged for a makeup artist to be available for the two candidates but when he asked them if they wanted makeup, JFK immediately declined and then Nixon had little choice but to follow suit.

Kennedy then went to his dressing room and put on makeup himself. Nixon looked swarthy and sweaty under the lights.

Susan Estrich is a politician, professor, lawyer and writer. She has appeared on the pages of The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and The Washington Post. Ms. Estrich has also appeared as a television commentator on CNN, Fox News, NBC, ABC, CBS and NBC. Her focus is on legal matters, women's concerns, national politics, and social issues. Read Susan Estrich's Reports — More Here.

© Creators Syndicate Inc.

There are moments in debates that get replayed constantly, that can make or break a candidate.
debate, biden, trump, election
Monday, 24 June 2024 04:06 PM
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