Sept. 28 (UPI) — President Donald Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden are set to meet for their first debate on Tuesday evening, continuing a long tradition of prime-time face time that has the potential to make or break a campaign.
While 2020 has been an unusual election year, with fewer in-person campaign events and virtual conventions due to COVID-19, the two major-party candidates won’t be skipping the chance to go head to head on the nation’s most pressing issues before a national audience.
Presidential debates, which have been televised live for 60 years, give candidates the chance to interact with each other directly, sometimes for the first time, before voters.
For some candidates, it might be a gaffe that keeps pundits talking. For others, a poor debate performance can go a long way toward killing their chance for the White House.
Here’s a dive into the UPI archives for a look at some of the more memorable moments of past debates:
Nixon vs. Kennedy, the first televised debate (1960)
UPI File Photo
John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon would eventually become president, but for the senator from Massachusetts, the first televised presidential debate was a chance to shine.
The charismatic Democrat appeared more at ease in front of the camera and his appearance — with a deep tan and a sharp, dark suit — certainly did him favors. The Republican vice president, meanwhile, wore makeup that made him look pale and a gray suit that washed him out. Critics said he seemed uncomfortable in front of the cameras — something politicians of that era didn’t have to worry about as much.
It’s a famous tale now, but those who listened to the debate on the radio thought it was a tie between the two candidates. In fact, one Democrat told UPI that Nixon might have “had the edge” in points he made.
But “if you listened to the hollers from the crowd, [Kennedy] might get the edge,” they said.
“I was listening to [the debate] on the radio coming into Lincoln, Kan., and I thought Nixon was doing a great job,” onetime Republican presidential nominee and longtime Sen. Bob Dole said in a PBS interview in 1999.
“Then I saw the TV clips the next morning, and he…didn’t look well. Kennedy was young and articulate and…wiped him out.”
Kennedy would go on to win the presidency, and the popular vote difference (about 113,000 votes) was one of the narrowest in U.S. history.
Youth and inexperience (1984)
UPI File Photo
Age again emerged as a factor in the 1984 debates between incumbent President Ronald Reagan and former Vice President Walter Mondale.
In the first meeting on Oct. 8, a group of debate coaches who watched the face-to-face showdown told UPI that Mondale was the stronger personality of the two.
“The overall impression of Reagan is that he was oddly disoriented and confused with regard to many of the subjects,” said Darrell Scott of Gonzaga University.
Pundits questioned whether Reagan’s performance indicated he was too old, at age 73, to hold down another term in office. He’d already become the oldest person to take the oath of office for his first term, at 69.
Concerns about Reagan’s age and mental clarity led to perhaps one of his most memorable quotes. Questioned about his age and fitness for office, Reagan said:
“I want you to know that also I will not make age an issue in this campaign.
“I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience,” he added, earning raucous laughter in the debate hall — even from Mondale.
A month later, Reagan cruised to a landslide victory — winning all but 13 electoral votes.
‘You’re no Jack Kennedy’ (1988)
Presidential candidates aren’t the only ones to make headlines in the debate arena. In his 1988 vice presidential debate with Sen. Dan Quayle, Democratic Sen. Lloyd Bentsen, running on the ticket with presidential hopeful Michael Dukakis, uttered four words so famous they’ve come to take on their own meaning today.
The quip, which dominated headlines for days after the debate, came after Quayle insisted he had as much experience heading into the vice presidency — none — as Kennedy did when he became president.
Bentsen recoiled with the comparison.
“Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.”
Bentsen and Dukakis would lose the race to Quayle and Vice President George H.W. Bush, who amassed a whopping 426 electoral votes.
In the three decades since that debate, the phrase, “You’re no Jack Kennedy” has come to be used by politicos and laymen alike to call out someone for thinking too highly of themselves.
‘Who am I? Why am I here’ (1992)
The Oct. 13, 1992, vice presidential debate marked the return of a candidate who came off as confused and unfocused.
Adm. James Stockdale, Ross Perot’s independent running mate, became the butt of jokes after his debate appearance — in which he repeatedly used the word “gridlock” and at one point asked the moderator to repeat a question because his hearing aid hadn’t been turned on.
But it was his opening statement that drew the most attention, starting off asking rhetorically, “Who am I? Why am I here?”
At one point during a heated exchange about abortion between Democrat Al Gore and Vice President Dan Quayle, Stockdale quipped that he felt “like an observer at a ping-pong game.”
Five of six debate judges assembled by UPI decided Gore was the winner, while one chose Quayle. But although Stockdale was perhaps the least polished of the candidates, he delivered one of the best lines of the night — breaking into a spirited back-and-forth between the other two, saying, “I think America is seeing right now the reason this nation is in gridlock.”
Stockdale’s performance was later mocked on Saturday Night Live in a skit with Phil Hartman as the admiral and Dana Carvey as Perot.
Perot and Stockdale, who died in 2005, ultimately won nearly 19% of the vote on Election Day — the best performance by a third-party ticket in modern political history.
Binders full of women (2012)
File Photo by Pat Benic/UPI
Moving into the 21st century, Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney faced ridicule after his second debate with incumbent President Barack Obama eight years ago, when he appeared to be out of touch with women voters.
When asked about pay equity for women, Romney gave an anecdote about assembling his Cabinet after becoming governor of Massachusetts. He said he noticed all the candidates were men.
“And so we took a concerted effort to go out and find women who had backgrounds that could be qualified to become members of our Cabinet,” he said.
“I went to a number of women’s groups and said, ‘Can you help us find folks?’ and they brought us whole binders full of women.”
The comment was widely mocked by Romney’s detractors and, of course, found fame as an Internet meme.
Obama later took shots at Romney’s choice of words, telling supporters, “I’ve got to tell you, we don’t have to collect a bunch of binders to find qualified, talented, driven young women.”
A few weeks later, Obama cruised to re-election with 332 electoral votes.
Nasty woman (2016)
File Photo by Kevin Dietsch/UPI
In the most recent presidential debate before Tuesday, on Oct. 19, 2016, a comment uttered by then-Republican nominee Donald Trump would come to be a rallying cry for his opponent, Democrat Hillary Clinton, and her supporters.
In the closing moments of the debate, the former first lady, New York senator and Secretary of State made a barb at Trump and his refusal to release information on his tax returns — which, incidentally, he still hasn’t done. She called for a tax increase for the rich, acknowledging that it would raise her own taxes — and Trump’s, “assuming he can’t figure out how to get out of it.”
Trump interrupted, “Such a nasty woman.”
Seemingly unfazed, Clinton continued to explain her plans for Social Security.
Though the comment did not derail Trump’s campaign, it instantly became social media fodder — spurring a #NastyWoman hashtag and the creation of merchandise, including T-shirts.
A poem titled “Nasty Woman” was recited at the Women’s March on Washington the day after Trump’s inauguration in 2017, and there have also been art exhibits based on the famous phrase to benefit Planned Parenthood.
Meanwhile, the New York Times on Sunday published a report showing that Trump has paid no federal taxes for 10 of the past 15 years through 2017.