Since their introduction in 1960, televised debates have been a key component in American presidential races. Even in the first debate, the implications and importance of it were clear. Richard Nixon, who was considered a favorite at the time, debated John F. Kennedy, who was then notably considered the loser, but interestingly enough only by those that watched the debate. It was also aired on the radio and the listeners at the time thought that Nixon would be the winner. What they couldn’t see was the uncontrollable sweat and visual nervousness that plagued Nixon throughout the debate which, when contrasted with his opponent, the suave and charismatic Kennedy, made him the clear loser. This was the first televised debate and it set the tone for what was to come in the future. The trend of being charming and knowing the right thing to say at the right time became almost as much of an importance as having the correct political stances.
In 1988, another historic debate moment arose when Lloyd Bentsen forcibly remarked to Dan Quayle, “Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.” While referencing Kennedy’s political experience and knowledge, Quayle made a comment that he had similar levels himself and Bentsen took offense to this statement, as he was a close friend of Kennedy. This back and forth led to one of the more renowned moments in the history of televised debates. The crowd reached excessive levels of cheering and applause, which was unusual for debates and the ruckus had to be contained for a moment.
Later on, in 1992, another famous debate moment occurred when George Bush Sr. noticeably checked his watch in the middle of a debate with Bill Clinton. It underscored the stereotype he faced of being callous and uncaring about the people and politics of the United States. At the same time Clinton was able to capitalize and use the moment to highlight his empathetic side. He reached out to the audience and addressed people directly as well as even going so far as to embrace them. The debate solidified the public’s beliefs of each candidate and their personality types were designated from that point on.
Even today, the debates are constantly evolving. During Obama and Romney’s respective campaigns, they each had their own highlights. Obama made Romney seem slightly idiotic when he mentioned to him that the navy now “also has fewer horses and bayonets.” The comment received a mix of laughter and it helped Obama maintain his demeanor of being a down to earth candidate while his opponent, who was already seen as a cold businessman, came off as even more of the stereotype.
The 2016 presidential race has had its own moments as well. The debates this year included technological features that had never existed before. The debates featured not only graphics and interactive social media presence but also video from the candidates’ pasts. They were forced to speak about their previous stances and decisions that were shown in front of them. The new style of debate was an interesting development in the platform of discussion.
The presidential debates have changed and have become ever more involving with the candidates as well as the public and they will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.