Soon, the presidential and vice presidential candidates will square off in the time-honored tradition of debate. In many of the years past, some of these debates have featured “turning points” – something a candidate said or did that either blew any chance they may have had at the nation’s highest office, or put them over the top. Will this be one of those years?
John Kerry’s biggest stroke of luck is that wives aren’t included in these debates. Teresa gives the term “loose cannon” an extreme makeover, behaving more like an unsecured Howitzer on a Tilt-A-Whirl. She’s told a reporter to “shove it,” said she wouldn’t be surprised if Bush pulls bin Laden out of storage in late October, and has called her critics “scumbags,” just to name a few. In a heated debate, chances are, she’d sound less like a potential first lady and more like an irritated Gabor sister in the middle of a hemorrhoid flare-up.
Bush has the upper hand going in to the first debate, simply because he has the ability to spin a funny line, and it won’t be all that surprising if he mispronounces a word. Debates have been won or lost on humor, or saying or doing something stupid. Kerry is unable to do the former, which would be the only way to bail himself out of the latter, so the pressure is really on him to be, well, boring. Lucky for him, that’s what he’s good at.
There have been some very memorable “turning points” in past debates.
Ronald Reagan’s debates were most remembered for the humor. In a 1980 debate, when the Gipper said to the man who looked like the nation felt, Jimmy Carter, “There you go again,” Carter started packing his suitcase before the debate was over. In 1984, when asked by a moderator about his age and Reagan said, “I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience,” Walter Mondale, if he would have shown up, would have thrown in the towel right then and there.
Humor is a key ingredient, because it makes for some memorable moments, and if properly used, its disarming nature can be used to overshadow gaffes. Some gaffes, however, can’t be covered up by a well-spun funny, especially in the age of televised debates.
Back in 1960, when Khrushchev was using his shoe as a gavel, Nixon and Kennedy squared off in the first debate to be broadcast on television. Nixon was sweating under the gigantic tanning beds that, in those days, passed as TV lights. Nixon’s discomfort was apparent, which is understandable when you take into account that he was probably worried JFK’s brothers were backstage hitting on Pat. Most people remember that debate for Dick’s extreme upper lip hyperhidrosis, and what was said escapes us.
In 1988, Bernard Shaw asked Michael Dukakis if he would support the death penalty if his wife, Kitty, were raped and murdered. Dukakis displayed the same emotion he would have if somebody asked him if he wanted seconds on the mashed potatoes, answering with an emotionless and unprotective sounding “no.” The cold response was an ingredient in Dukakis’ embarrassing loss, and also prompted Kitty to forever sleep with a tire iron under the pillow.
Al Gore set the standard for silent-film actors everywhere, showing up to a year 2000 debate against George W. Bush made up like a beefy Czechoslovakian hooker. This, too, was yet another debate happening that had nothing to do with anything, and yet meant a great deal in the way of perception. Gore, in this case, was attempting to look like Ronald Reagan, and ended up looking like the product of an overzealous undertaker. This is what we remembered. What was said? I have no idea.
This year, there will be three debates, with the first and third having a moderator, and the second an audience Question-and-Answer-style debate taking questions from undecided voters – the much sought after “eenie meenie minie moe” bloc that, at the beginning of October, still have no idea for whom they’ll be voting, and in many cases, won’t even know who they voted for after they voted. (Pat Buchanan’s fingers are crossed).
Three debates leaves plenty of room for somebody to make a gaffe or premiere a memorable one-liner, but both candidates have, no doubt, been spending countless hours rehearsing spontaneity, so don’t count on any true classics this time around.