The un-defining debate moments: Overlooked instances that deserve notice

Here’s the semi-official media guide to the presidential debates:

Richard Nixon had bad makeup; Gerald Ford prematurely liberated Poland from Soviet domination; Ronald Reagan said “there you go again” and asked if you were better off than you were four years ago; then four years later, he promised not to use Walter Mondale’s “youth and inexperience against him”; Michael Dukakis was insufficiently upset about his wife’s hypothetical rape and murder; Dan Quayle equated himself with John F. Kennedy and was then KO’ed when Senator Lloyd Bentson told him he was “no Jack Kennedy”; George H. W. Bush looked at his watch; Al Gore sighed.

The obsessive hunt for such moments explains why countless thousands of analysts, commentators, Tweeters, and bloggers will watch tonight’s encounter with fingers poised over keyboards, looking for that one parry, stumble, quip, metaphor or spontaneous outburst of eloquence that will ascend into the Pantheon of Defining Moments, thus sparing them the need to pronounce that “there were no knockdowns.”

For me, reducing the half-century of presidential debates into a handful of moments comes at a great price: It pushes into obscurity those un-defining moments that deserve recognition—and in some cases may have changed the public’s sense of who prevailed.  I’ve compiled a list of a few of my favorite under-the-radar retorts:

1) An Eddie Haskell Moment: In their third 1960 encounter, John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon were asked to weigh in on President Harry Truman’s use of language—he had more or less said that Nixon and the Republican Party could go to hell. Looking somewhat amused, Kennedy said, “... I really don't think there's anything that I could say to President Truman that's going to cause him, at the age of seventy-six, to change his particular speaking manner. Perhaps Mrs. Truman can, but I don't think I can.”

Nixon would have none of it: “ I can only say that I'm very proud that President Eisenhower restored dignity and decency and, frankly, good language to the conduct of the presidency of the United States,” he said. “And I only hope that, should I win this election, that I could approach President Eisenhower in maintaining the dignity of the office.”

Eisenhower, of course, was a career soldier, whose language could sometimes curl the Oval Office wallpaper; on the White House tapes, Nixon made “expletive deleted” a catch phrase. More importantly, those debate words reaffirmed Nixon’s status as the Eddie Haskell of his time. Like that sycophant from Leave it to Beaver, Nixon was prone to pious hypocrisies that made your teeth hurt. I’ve often wondered whether they drove just enough voters to say, “come off it!” altering the outcome.

2) The Warm-Up: The shorthand debate histories will note that in 1980, there was only one debate, on October 28, just a week before the election. Actually, another debate occurred more than a month earlier. But because the League of Women Voters (then the sponsor of these contests) had invited third-party candidate John Anderson to participate, President Carter refused to attend. While not a memorable clash of ideas, this overlooked debate did give Reagan a chance to demonstrate an amiable, reasonable approach to issues, a sharp contrast to the bomb-throwing, reckless image that the Carter campaign was painting of him.

When asked by Fortune Magazine’s Carol Loomis what specific policies he had that might prove unpopular, Reagan replied: “I believe that the only unpopular measures, actually, that could be, or would be applied, would be unpopular with the government, and with those, perhaps, some special interest groups who are tied closely to government.” While not an intellectually rigorous answer, it was reassuring to those worried that Reagan’s conservatism threatened their federal benefits.

3) Political Judo: The first and only time an independent candidate participated in the same debates as the incumbent president and his major party opponent happened in 1992. In the first debate, Ross Perot demonstrated a keen sense of “political judo”— the ability to turn a weakness into a strength.

When asked the predictable question about his lack of political experience, Perot eagerly agreed. Yes, he said, “I don’t have any experience in running up a $4 trillion debt.” By some accounts (including mine at the time), he actually won that debate. It’s one reason—along with his limitlessly deep pockets—that Perot was able to win 19% of the popular vote, despite his sometimes attenuated connection to reality.

4) I Feel Your Pain: During the 1992 Town Hall debate, a citizen asked the candidates, “How has the national debt personally affected each of your lives, and if it hasn’t how can you honestly find a cure for the economic problems of the common people if you have no experience in what’s ailing them?” President George H.W. Bush struggled to understand the question: “I think the national debt affects everybody,” he said. The debt drives up interest rates, he continued, and then went on with a wobbly answer that didn’t answer the question. Then he asked the questioner “are you suggesting that if someone has means then the national debt doesn’t affect them?” Moderator Carole Simpson finally said to Bush, “I think she means more the recession.”

When it was Bill Clinton’s turn, he walked right up to the questioner.  In tones that suggested a sympathetic social worker, he said, “Tell me how it has affected you again? You know people who have lost their jobs, lost their homes? Well, I’ve been governor of a small state for 12 years. I’ll tell you how it’s affected me...I have seen what’s happened in these last four years. When people lose their jobs, there’s a good chance I’ll know them by their names.” The then-governor launched into a broader indictment of the “12-years of trickle-down economics” of the Reagan-Bush years. You’ll find no sharper contrast of the right and wrong way to handle a citizen-questioner than this one.

5) Beltway-Speak:  During a 2000 debate, Vice President Gore was trying to show that Governor Bush’s support for a “Patient’s Bill of Rights” was empty rhetoric. He repeatedly cited “the Dingell-Norwood bill” pending in Congress. “I specifically would like to know,” he said, “whether Governor Bush will support the Dingle-Norwood bill, which is the main one pending.” Bush said that the difference between him and Gore was “I can get it [a patients’ bill of rights] done.”

“What about the Dingell-Norwood bill?” Gore interjected. On the merits, he scored. On the atmospherics, he seemed incapable of going beyond the world of “Washington-speak.” Just imagine how Bill Clinton would have dealt with the same issue.

These are a few of my favorite “un-defining” debate moments. Had space allowed, I would have shared another personal favorite: The dispute between Kennedy and Nixon about whether the U.S. should help protect the Nationalist Chinese islands of Quemoy and Matsu from mainland China’s attacks.

Talk about a game-changer.