Debating. Ourselves.

by Paul Orlando

Two days after the 2016 presidential election I turned one day of my normal university classes into a history of recent presidential campaigns. I looked at a few of the more famous moments from campaigns of the previous 50 years, none of which the students knew.

If you’re reading 3QD you probably know these moments. But you might also want to remind yourself that not everyone does, especially if they have not lived through them. If it’s a help, here is a short list that you might send others who are interested.

The 1960 Kennedy – Nixon debate

Before this debate even begins, the first thing you might notice is the way JFK sits. He crosses his legs. He’s also in a dark suit against a light background. He is also the better looking of the two candidates. Nixon, on the other hand, sits with both feet awkwardly on the floor and can’t find a place for his hands.

As a televised debate — and the first ever — these things unfortunately matter.

The next thing you might notice is that the moderator announces that there will be opening statements of eight minutes. Eight minutes! (And JFK only used about seven). And while it was not stated, there were to be no interruptions. This, after all, was formal debating. If you watch the debate, the striking thing is how different that style now seems.

Presidential candidates didn’t debate on television again until the 1976 campaign.

1964 LBJ – Goldwater

Barry Goldwater chose the slogan “In your heart, you know he’s right.” So how do you minimize the effect of something like that?

Make a rhyme.

Opponents turned Goldwater’s slogan into “In your guts, you know he’s nuts”, or “In your heart, you know he might” (as in, he might go nuclear). Playing to the nuclear fear, here’s the famous Daisy commercial from LBJ’s campaign.

1980 Reagan – Carter

Regan, the more photogenic and personable of the two candidates, had a number of one liners. Here he is using his “there you go again” retort.

1984 Reagan – Mondale

Just as in the 2016 and 2020 campaigns, age is an issue. At what point is someone too old to be president? But Reagan was prepared and turned the situation around. “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.”

Throughout that debate, Reagan even manages to get Mondale to laugh a couple times. It almost seemed like they were having fun debating together.

1988 Quayle – Bentsen

Similar to the rhymed riff off Goldwater’s campaign slogan above, the 1988 Bush campaign riffed off the Dukakis campaign’s “wimp” remarks (George H. W. Bush was seen as academic and wimpy) by retorting with “a wimp is better than a shrimp” (Dukakis was short compared to Bush). It doesn’t matter that it makes no sense. It stuck.

Rudeness is a different story. One famous remark — practiced and delivered perfectly — was this one that Dan Quayle set up for Lloyd Bentsen.

The Bentsen remark was in turn the set up four years later for Reagan to riff on that remark at the Republican National Convention with “Governor, you’re no Thomas Jefferson…” You can see the crowd realize what he’s doing along the way.

1996 Clinton – Dole

Subtle cues, that might signify nothing take on great meaning. Even something like Dole saying “I’ll get out of your way here” during his second debate with Clinton became interpreted as a lack of strength.

I’ll stop here and won’t include more recent debates than these. By now, we mostly know what we think of these past presidents, having at least the start of a proper evaluation of them. Not for those that are more recent.

The real role model for me in this regard is Peter Drucker. Here’s an interview question asked of Drucker in 2005, shortly before he died.

Q: “In 2002, President George W. Bush awarded you the National Medal of Freedom, very high honour. How would you assess George W Bush, graduate of the Harvard Business School, as national leader?”

A: “I’m sorry, I never answer questions about politics. One assesses a president 20 years after he has disappeared. We are just now beginning to understand Harry Truman and he is emerging as very great president. And I don’t think the time has come yet, when we are even able to assess this president’s father.”

Back to that 2016 post-election class I mentioned above… I learned from students that in each of their other classes that week their professors simply ranted about how much they hated the person elected. No real discussion, just rants. To me, no matter what you think of a past president, that’s a waste of time. You might as well say nothing at all.