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Ursula Carlson: The zinger legacy of presidential debates

By Ursula Carlson

The first presidential debate I witnessed was in 1960 between John Kennedy and Richard Nixon. I was still in high school and a Hubert Humphrey fan. My parents, however, were for Richard Nixon. All three of us were disappointed because the results had nothing to do with the debate itself.

Instead, what made the news then, and what is still the only thing anyone seems to remember, is that Nixon had a “five o’clock shadow” (the appearance that he had not shaved closely enough). This made him look haggard and old in comparison to the clean shaven, handsome young Kennedy (only four years younger than Nixon.) Is it any surprise that in 1968 and 1972, Nixon refused to participate in the presidential debates? So there were none.

By 1976 Gerald Ford (who became president after Nixon resigned) ran against the “unknown” governor of Georgia, Jimmy Carter. In this debate, the only thing history or anyone recalls is Ford’s unbelievable, unexplainable blunder: “There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe.” Ford knew about the Soviets in Eastern Europe if for no other reason than his 12th district in Michigan was full of refugees from Latvia who drummed constantly on him to oppose Soviet interests. But the blunder was the big and only story.

In 1980 when President Carter debated Ronald Reagan, the one liner that lives on in history is Reagan’s “There you go again,” said with his famous grin and slight shake of the head, as if chiding a naughty boy. In fact, Carter had pointed out how Reagan began his political career by being against Medicare. But no one remembers that. Instead, the optics of ease and grace outweighed dull facts.

Walter Mondale, a Democrat candidate in 1984, debated his fellow Democrat Gary Hart in a presidential primary, making a name for himself by asking Hart “Where’s the beef?” — a reference to a Wendy’s hamburger commercial in which an old lady implies that a competing fast food outlet doesn’t have much meat in their hamburgers.

Although Mondale made points with his snappy beef zinger, he was outdone in the presidential debate by Reagan’s declaration that he would not “make an issue of age” – that he would not “exploit [his] opponent’s youth and inexperience.” Despite Mondale’s spontaneous laughter at the joke, the aw-shucks actor “won” the debate.

The news media, as well as television or video, like zingers, witty one-liners, or at least blunders, or embarrassing behaviors. After all, that’s what brings in the money. Watchers, too love zingers, the humor of embarrassing any highly inflated ego: a chance to take someone down a peg or two. We are nothing if not a culture that worships celebrity in general, and sharp-witted celebrity in particular. Sometimes I think if Bob Hope were alive today, or maybe even Johnny Carson, America would love him as president.

Today’s debates do not reflect the skills an actual president needs to lead his or her country well.

Debating for or against something is too simplistic. Real life is more than a choice between two possibilities: for taxes or against taxes; for death penalty or against it; for abortion or against it. Real life demands analysis. Reasoning, not sloganeering.

Presidents do not have to be experts in everything themselves. But they need experts to whom they can listen and whose opinions they are capable of evaluating and assessing. Presidents have to be intelligent and unafraid of complicated problems that require them to analyze and make difficult decisions.

Ursula Carlson, Ph.D., is professor emerita at Western Nevada College.