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 3: Laughter is Not the Best Medicine If They Are Laughing at You [video]

Admiral James Stockdale was a highly decorated navy pilot who had been a prisoner-of-war in Vietnam along with future GOP presidential candidate Senator John McCain. When first named Ross Perot’s running mate in 1992, Stockdale was a “place holder” to qualify Perot for ballots until a more experienced running mate was found. But Perot stuck with the admiral, who attempted to introduce himself to a national audience by asking, “Who Am I? Why I am here?” His follow-up statement, “I am not a politician” got lost and he seemed befuddled. His gambit made Admiral Stockdale fodder for “Saturday Night Live.”

But Stockdale, who died in 2005 at age 81, later wrote defiantly that he had chosen his words that night very deliberately, inspired by the Stoic philosophy of rigorous self-discipline and individual responsibility that helped him survive four years in solitary confinement.  His erudition was lost on late night comics.

Lesson 4: Leave Comedy to the Pros [video]

While on the subject of laughter, nothing is lamer than a stiff politician who can’t do punch lines. Most can’t. Ronald Reagan could and in a 1984 debate with Walter Mondale, he successfully defused the “age issue” when he said, “I want you to know that also I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.” Of course, Reagan came to politics with an advantage. He was a veteran actor who once co-starred with a chimp. He knew funny and could deliver his lines.

Lesson 5: Zingers Must Zing [video]

The corollary to the rule above is also a nod to Ronald Reagan’s skills. The

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