History of US presidential debates: most memorable moments


The main task of both participants in the upcoming September 29 first presidential debate, both current President Donald Trump and his rival Joe Biden, is to avoid serious mistakes during the discussion. Voice of America invites you to recall the most famous and scandalous debates that took place in the past, influencing American politics.

Almost every debate gave rise to special moments, sometimes defining a politician’s career, leaving an indelible mark on the country’s politics.

In 1984, the first round of televised debates between incumbent President Ronald Reagan and former Vice President of the Jimmy Carter administration, Democrat Walter Mondale, unexpectedly called into question Reagan’s undoubted re-election.

Ronald Reagan and Walter Mondale

“During this debate, something happened – against the best efforts of the (Republican) candidate, it showed the American people what they should have known about the candidate,” Walter Mondale told Voice of America.

Mondale has twice managed to cast Reagan in a bad light.

“Reagan didn’t really try to follow the text of his speech, and he got confused during his speech. He forgot what the conversation was about at the beginning of his speech. In the end, he said that two-thirds of the defense budget is spent on pensions, food and clothing for the military, saying that only a small part of the budget goes to the purchase of weapons, ”recalls Mondale.

“We do not have many opportunities to see candidates ‘without filters’, next to each other on television, without intermediaries in the form of journalists or without the direct influence of advisers who advise what exactly they need to talk about,” notes Alan Schroeder, professor of journalism at Severo – Eastern University, who wrote a book on the role of television in presidential debates. The first televised debate took place in 1960 between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon.

John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon

John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon

“Nixon had been discharged from the hospital a few weeks earlier, lost a lot of weight, was very pale, and the organizers of the debate did not take care of the makeup that he needed to put on his face. He was sweating, it was obvious that he had lost weight and looked bad on the screen, ”says Schroeder.

“We know that he has given up on makeup himself, so it seemed like he looked gloomy. Radio listeners to the debate believed Nixon would win the election. However, viewers were confident that Kennedy would win, ”says Frank Cesno, director of strategic initiatives at George Washington University and CNN’s White House correspondent.

“There was such a famous moment in the debate, in which Gerald Ford participated – he said that Poland is not dependent on the influence of the Soviet Union,” Sesno recalls.

“There is no Soviet domination in Eastern Europe, and never will be, under the Ford administration,” the president said in 1976 while trying to be re-elected for a second term. The election was then won by Democrat Jimmy Carter.

“If you look at the tape of this debate, you will see that the moderator was almost speechless at that moment,” said political scientist Mary Keith Kerry, senior fellow at the Miller Center at the University of Virginia. She was a speechwriter for President George W. Bush, who debated with Democrat Bill Clinton and independent candidate Ross Perot in 1992.

Bill Clinton and George W. Bush

Bill Clinton and George W. Bush

“One of them broke the rules by greatly exceeding the time of his speech. And moderator Carol Simpson did not point out this violation to the candidate. George W. Bush began to glance expressively at his watch, hinting to the moderator about the need to comply with the timetable. But the public did not know the rules of the debate. People thought that Bush wanted to leave the studio … And it turned against him, ”says Kerry.

According to Schroeder, during those debates, Bush really did not want to be in the debate, believing that he should not show himself in this way to voters.

“It is interesting. Years later, in an interview with Jim Lehrer, he actually, recalling this moment, said that he did not want to be there, “says Schroeder.

Despite an unsuccessful first round of debates with Mondale in 1984, Ronald Reagan in the second debate responded well to the suggestion that he, then the oldest US president, would not be able to cope with the grueling job as head of state. Democrat Mondale was 56 in 1984.

Reagan successfully fended off a rival’s attack, declaring that he did not want to put “aging at the forefront of the election campaign,” adding that he did not intend to “use his opponent’s youth and inexperience for political purposes.”

Mondale ultimately suffered a crushing defeat, beating Reagan only in his native Minnesota and in the metropolitan area of ​​Columbia, the worst-ever presidential defeat for a Democratic candidate.

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