Eight Lessons for the Presidential Debates

What are the key do's and don'ts the candidates should remember when campaigning for the White House?

07 Oct 1960, Washington, DC, USA --- Presidential candidates John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon shake hands after their televised debate of October 7, 1960. The two opponents continued their debate after the cameras had stopped. (© Bettmann / CORBIS)

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Lesson 1: Lay off the Lazy Shave and Get Some Sun

The slightly unshaven look may work for Don Draper on “Mad Men,” but it was not a plus for Richard Nixon, as he learned in his historic confrontation with John F. Kennedy in the first presidential debate in 1960. Nixon had just come from a hospital stay. He had lost weight in the hospital and his suit looked ill fitting. He had also injured a knee and had to lean on the podium. To make matters worse, Nixon was given a heavy pancake makeup called “Lazy-Shave” to conceal his five o-clock shadow, making him appear even more pale and haggard. Chicago’s legendary Mayor, Richard Daley, reportedly said, “My God they’ve embalmed him before he even died.”

Few people recall any “sound bites” from that first night. But the junior Senator from Massachusetts looked rested and ready. Projecting youthful vigor, a tanned Kennedy, who had been in California, proved he could hold his own against the more experienced Nixon. Kennedy was America’s first “made for television” candidate and his small screen magic scored. Polls at the time showed he had turned a deficit into a lead after the first debate. The other three meetings were widely considered toss-ups.

Lesson 2: Be Sure You Can See Russia (and the Rest of Eastern Europe)

Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard Nixon had no interest in debating their opponents in the elections of 1964 to 1972. But after a 16-year hiatus, the presidential face-offs returned in 1976. In October that year, the debates resumed with a new loophole in the “equal time” rule: the FCC ruled that debates were “bona fide news events,” and if sponsored by an organization other than the networks, would be exempted. The League of Women Voters stepped in.

But Gerald Ford, the only president never elected president or vice president, learned a harsh lesson in geopolitics when, in the second debate with Jimmy Carter, he said, “There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe and there never will be under a Ford administration.”

When the incredulous moderator followed up, Ford repeated the assertion. With the Soviet Union controlling most of Eastern Europe since the end of World War II, Ford had unleashed a gaffe that didn’t clinch Carter’s victory that year. But his jaw-dropping statement seemed to give credence to the view that he was in over his head and confirmed his earlier words to Congress—“I’m a Ford not a Lincoln.” Years later, Ford would defend his words saying he hadn’t adequately explained that he meant that he believed that the Polish people would “throw the Soviet…forces out.”

The bottom line: “losing” a debate, especially with a whopper of a mistake, is probably more significant than actually “winning” it.

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