4. HE WHO ZINGS, WINS
This one is almost too easy to debunk. Lloyd Bentsen. Lloyd Bentsen. Lloyd Bentsen.
In the 1988 vice presidential debate, Quayle was apparently miffed at being asked for the third time by the moderators whether he was prepared to be president. The 41-year-old candidate replied that he had as much experience in the Senate as John F. Kennedy had when he ran for president in 1960.
When Judy Woodruff turned to Bentsen for his reply, he pounced. “Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy,” he said sternly. “I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.” The audience hooted. The exchange went down in history.
Probably the other most memorable zinger fell in 1984 from the lips of Ronald Reagan, then 73 and debating Walter Mondale, a man 17 years his junior. In their first debate, Reagan seemed at times vague and confused. Not so in their second meeting: “I will not make age an issue of this campaign,” he said. “I am not going to exploit for political purposes my opponent’s youth and inexperience.” Zing.
But did either exchange shift the outcome of the election? Reagan won 49 of 50 states; Mondale only his home state of Minnesota and the District of Columbia. This probably had more to do with the Democrat’s pledge to raise taxes than with the debate smackdown. As for the Dukakis-Bentsen ticket, it managed to turn a 17-point post-convention lead into an Election Day drubbing.
5. DEBATES ARE THE LAST BEST CHANCE FOR CANDIDATES TO DEFINE THEMSELVES
No, “Saturday Night Live” is.
Whether it’s Tina Fey as Palin, Amy Poehler as Hillary Rodham Clinton or Jason Sudeikis as Romney or Vice President Biden, a dead-on impersonation that lampoons a candidate’s most cartoonish qualities can leave a nasty mark.
Gerald Ford was a gifted college athlete, but Chevy Chase convinced us that he was a bumbling buffoon. Bill Clinton is probably as skilled a politician as has ever graced the national stage, but Darrell Hammond spawned a generation of grainy-voiced, winking Clinton impersonators by portraying him as a leering man of untamed appetites.
In 2004, when I moderated the Cheney-Edwards debate, the “SNL” spoof featured that week’s host, Queen Latifah, playing me. But I didn’t know what would happen in 2008. In the interim, I’d met Queen Latifah and joked that she should play me again if the opportunity presented itself. She replied, “Sure, if there’s material.”
Palin’s candidacy in 2008, and my return as moderator, provided plenty of material. To this day, whenever I speak at a college, I am asked what I thought about being played by her.
I always reply: “Are you kidding? How else would anyone remember I was even on the stage?”
Ifill is managing editor of “Washington Week” and senior correspondent for the “PBS Newshour.” She moderated the vice presidential debates in 2004 and 2008.