Tonawanda News

October 3, 2012

DUVALL: Debates are flub fodder, but not very much else

By Eric DuVall
The Tonawanda News

— We have reached my absolute favorite stage in any political campaign: the debates!

This being a presidential year, it is especially amusing.

I’m not sure what I love more: the run-up to the debate when candidates do their best to convince people they’re blithering idiots in a cynical attempt to lower expectations for their performance, or when they actually fail to meet those lowered expectations.

Who am I kidding? I really love it when politicians screw up.

With the knowledge that any serious attempt to evaluate what the candidates should say is next to impossible, I propose we relive some of my favorite debate moments from this and previous presidential campaigns.

We have to start with the granddaddy of putdowns, delivered by an otherwise unmemorable vice presidential candidate, Texas Democrat Llyod Bentsen. 

In 1988, Bentsen was running with the equally forgettable Michael Dukakis against George Bush. As you remember, Bush’s vice president was Dan “PoTAYtoe-PoTAHtoe” Quayle. 

Quayle’s presence on the ticket was intended to bring some youthful balance because even in 1988 George Bush was really old. To explain away his youthful inexperience, Qualye had taken to reminding people he was the same age as President Kennedy when he ran for office. The rather obtuse comparison irked Bentsen, who had served in the Senate with Kennedy.

So when Quayle was asked about his inexperience, Bentsen was ready with this verbal two-by-four: “Senator, I knew Jack Kennedy. I served with Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. You, senator, are no Jack Kennedy.”

Quayle’s wimpy response didn’t help: “That was really uncalled for, senator.”

I also enjoy this example because it illustrates just how useless and overblown vice presidential candidates are. I mean, if Dan Quayle can do it ...

President Obama had a memorable exchange with Hillary Clinton during the 2008 primary that is probably cause for some awkward seat-shifting during national security meetings these days. 

Clinton was asked how she felt about voters who liked her experience but preferred a more likable Obama. She rather graciously endured the petty question, conceding “He’s very likable.” Obama, looking up from a note he was writing, rather condescendingly replied, “You’re likable enough, Hillary.”

Ronald Reagan utterly devastated Jimmy Carter in 1980 with the simple dismissive, “there you go again.” Carter had been harping on Reagan as a conservative monster intent on dismantling the federal government, which wasn’t all that far from the truth, but Reagan’s folksy demeanor gave him the space to wave away every Carter critique with the simple phrase.

In his debate with George W. Bush, Al Gore came off as a condescending, effete intellectual in 2000 — partly because that’s what he is — and partly because the microphone kept picking up on a Gore verbal tick, that he would sigh at everything Bush said.

Needless to say, that was the start of an eight year trend for condescending, effete intellectuals.

But my favorite debate moment ever belongs to Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s infamous “oops”. Perry had been on the primary trail promising if elected to eliminate three federal agencies — commerce, education and ... “what’s the third one?” After a torturous exchange with an incredulous moderator and a failed lifeline from opponent Ron Paul who incorrectly suggested it was the EPA, Perry stated the obvious: “Oops.”

All these memorable debate gaffes make for a larger point: Why do we never remember anything but a stumble or a put down?

Methinks this whole presidential debate thing is a bit overblown.

Eric DuVall is the managing editor of the Tonawanda News. His column appears Wednesdays and Sundays. Contact him at