My Reaction to the 20th Century Vice Presidential Debates (2/2)

Bentsen v Quayle 1988

This is where the single most famous moment of any US debate occurred, “Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy” where Lloyd Bentsen put Dan Quayle in his place. It was well deserved, because if you’ve seen any of the moments of Quayle’s well-documented stupidity, (including misspelling “potato,”) you know he was not only an idiot but very mean spirited as well. This is in stark contrast to JFK who, for all his womanizing and any other flaws he may have possessed, was a competent administrator and eloquent speaker. (If nothing else, JFK deserves credit for seeing us through our greatest crisis of the Cold War and chartered the way for the moon mission.) There’s a lot of confident idiots like Dan Quayle running around in the world today. Unfortunately, you rarely see them get put in their place so perfectly as this. That’s why this moment resonated so well; had it been used against an average opponent like Dole or Kemp it would have fallen flat. But against Quayle, it was like seeing your incompetent middle management boss at Sears compare themselves to Abe Lincoln, or your jackass Ayn Rand worshiping roommate compare themselves to Steve Jobs. Just…no. Bentsen’s reply is what we all wanted to say to people like them in the moment, what we didn’t think to say until the next morning in the shower.

Now, my criticisms of Quayle aside, the first question here is pretty needlessly harsh. 1988 seems to have been the year for terrible debate questions, like the infamous one directed at Dukakis. Essentially the moderator goes to great pains to list off how everyone hates Quayle and thinks he’s an idiot, and then she challenges him to prove his self-worth. This may have been a fair question to ask, but coming first, it feels unnecessarily mean spirited. It allows Quayle no time to settle into the debate and get his confidence up. I know this is the big leagues, but there’s no reason such a harsh, personal question could not have come later in the debate, or perhaps been more professionally worded.

Another great reality check thrown Quayle’s way comes when he says “I have a very strong record in the Senate” to derisive laughter from the crowd. Poor guy. Seriously though, what was Bush thinking tying himself to this guy who was obviously a laughingstock? But that said, even though I strongly dislike Quayle, it’s pretty tiring hearing him constantly asked about his qualifications throughout the debate. Literally he’s asked that same question 4 different times, phrased only slightly differently. It really feels like the moderators had it out for him from the get go, and wouldn’t let him off no matter what he said. Maybe it was deserved, but it’s pretty irritating to listen to and comes off like bullying.

Overall, I’d say this is one you can skip. This is the wise experienced old man beating the stuffing out of the youngster who’s in over his head. (Similar to Biden vs Ryan, but we’ll get there soon.) The famous “you’re no Jack Kennedy” quip basically sums up the entire debate, and if you’re familiar with that line, you’ve already gotten the gist of this exchange.

Gore v Quayle v Stockdale 1992

The only three-way VP debate, from one of the most fascinating elections in modern times. The most iconic moment of this debate is when Stockdale asks the rhetorical question “who am I? Why am I here?” Coupled with his exasperated and feeble appearance, he came across like some senile old man wandered in from the local retirement community and everyone was too polite to throw him off the stage. It was not a good look, it cost him some points right at the beginning and set the tone for his whole performance. Towards the end, no joke, Stockdale responds to the moderator’s question with “I didn’t have my hearing aid in, what was the question?” That’s got to be the worst beginning to a debate answer I’ve ever seen. You may think I’m picking on him by pulling a single unflattering moment wildly out of context, but his entire performance is more or less the same.

I have to wonder why Perot went with Stockdale. I guess because he’s a decorated war hero, but surely there was someone better suited to the challenges of the debate. In the modern era, besides the remote possibility you may die and they take over, the only thing a VP is needed for is balancing the ticket and doing well enough in their sole debate that it doesn’t hinder a candidate’s momentum. Repeatedly, Stockdale has to pause, put on his glasses and read his talking points to answer the questions. He keeps pausing in the middle of his answers, almost like he’s losing his train of thought. It’s a terrible performance. There’s a lot of “uhhs” and repetitions as well. He’s even given the chance to jump in with a rebuttal at one point and confesses he has nothing prepared for the subject at hand and doesn’t know the rules, so his time goes to Gore. Watching this debate I forgot Stockdale was even there at times. He completely fades into the background while Gore and Quayle engage in several heated exchanges. When he’s brought in again it’s for a quick, stumbling answer which only serves to offer some laughs to an otherwise hostile back and forth between two younger, nimbler candidates. Stockdale never takes the initiative and demand to be heard either–usually it’s the moderator feeling sorry for him and trying to butt in and give Stockdale a chance to speak. He really did Perot a disservice with this weak stumbling performance.

I think Gore’s schtick, judging by this and his 1996 performance, seems to be “making a deal” with the opposition in the beginning of a debate. Here, he says he won’t compare Quayle to JFK if Quayle won’t compare Bush to Truman. Bringing up Quayle’s epic fiasco of a performance in ’88, but under the guise of burying the hatchet, was a brilliant move straight out of Cicero’s playbook. I’m sure it threw Quayle off his game, and the earlier “Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy” attack was so well known that it was sure not to backfire for Gore to bring up. It evens gets a big laugh from the audience and reminds them what a putz Quayle is. Gore also elicits a big applause line against Quayle asking “when are you gonna focus here, on the people in *this* country?” He had the audience eating out of his hand from the word “go.”

Quayle is pretty grating. He’s basically the perfect caricature of the confident idiot, blissfully unaware of his own stupidity. He yells a lot and just comes across as someone who talks loud to compensate for lack of intelligence. Here, when challenged directly on trickle down economics, Quayle launches into an embarrassing rant throwing everything and the kitchen sink at Gore: “well, you’re for trickle down government! And YOU haven’t answered why Bill Clinton deserves to be President!!” While he’s raving like a little kid having a temper tantrum, Gore comes off like the adult in the room, responding: “Well, I’d be happy to answer that” This also prompts Stockdale to come in with “I think the American people are seeing right now why this country is in gridlock!” to thunderous applause. (This is the only inspired or successful moment Stockdale has the entire night.)

At another point, around 36 minutes in, Quayle starts stuttering, saying “Let’s talk, let’s, lets’, let’s talk” like a dozen times. Another big failure comes when Gore traps him into a yes or no question and rather than answer, Quayle holds up his hand saying “My turn! My turn!” again, looking positively infantile. Then he goes on to ignore the question, only to stop and address Gore again with “ya pulled another Clinton on me!” evidently he forgot to use his big pre-planned line, and then thought it was so great he came back to it again even though the moment had passed.

Overall, I highly recommend watching this debate in particular. If for no other reason, the historical nature of a 3 way debate, possibly the only one we will ever have, but also for the amazing ferocity between Gore and Quayle. It is one of the most heated debates I’ve ever seen, VP or no. Gore is a great example of what to do in a debate in order to be successful. In fact, I usually avoid calling an outright winner, but in this case I’m confident in saying he won this debate handily. Clinton ought to have been grateful. Again, it’s very frustrating we didn’t see this Gore during 2000’s debates. Quayle and especially Stockdale, in comparison, are great examples of what NOT to do. They say the VP debates have never influenced an election, but I’d be shocked if Stockdale’s embarrassing performance here didn’t cost Perot at least a few crucial votes. Especially being an independent, Perot really had to run a perfect, above and beyond campaign to even have a chance. It’s ok for a regular candidate to have a dud VP nomination (though it doesn’t help–ask McGovern or McCain) but for Perot, along with his other mistakes, it was ruinous.

Gore v Kemp 1996

Ugh, this is the moderator I don’t like from the Presidential debates. (We’ll get to that soon.) I guess this is how he got his start. He’s actually very good here though, surprisingly. Nowhere near as intrusive, he keeps order and keeps his mouth shut otherwise which is what a moderator should do. No interruptions, no forcing them to address off topic sub-issues, or pitching a fit about the candidates facing their opponent when they speak. (I guess he got a big head after this and wanted to play gatekeeper in the future contests.)

Kemp really wins me over right away by skipping the annoying, forced “thank you’s” in the the first question and getting right into the answer. (Candidates wasting time to thank the moderator and debate host is one of my big pet peeves.) I also like his snappy quip “90 seconds? I can’t clear my throat in 90 seconds!” in reference to the ridiculous time limits I’ve been harping on myself. Gore’s own first answer is good too. It gets a laugh out of the audience and lightens the mood. I say again, we could have used more of this Gore in the 2000 debates.

I really like Kemp in this debate. He’s a lot more charismatic and entertaining than Dole himself, who is perhaps the most boring and forgettable candidate since Mondale. I dislike his views, particularly his insistence that everything we do be founded on our “Judeo-Christian values” though. It’s also funny to see Kemp accuse Gore of all people of demagoguery. Regardless of your political leaning, I think if any party could be accused of such, especially since Reagan and even more especially now with Trump, it’s the Republicans. And if that’s too partisan, I’d say that while some Democrats like Obama might skirt the line by making populist promises they didn’t intend to keep in office, Gore is not one of those people. Gore always struck me as honest about his intentions almost to a fault if anything. Gore was a technocrat and a third-way Democrat, the kind which modern Bernie populism (and progressive borderline-demagoguery) is a reaction against.

Overall, this is a very spirited, entertaining debate in stark contrast to the dull as dirt Presidential outings from the same cycle. If this Al Gore had debated Bush, not the smug stick in the mud he became, he would have won. And it’s a legit shame Kemp faded out after this election. I disagree with him on most things, but he puts up a good enough argument that he almost convinces me. He’s very personable in a way most of the ’96-and-beyond Republican candidates were not. Perhaps it’s a strange point to bring up, but I love the way the camera focuses on the moderator at the end, and then the two candidates shaking hands overtake him in the frame right after. That was an amazing, cinematic shot right there; rarely does one witness such inspired cinematography at a political event.

1 Comment

  1. I never saw this: most famous moment of any US debate occurred, “Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy” where Lloyd Bentsen put Dan Quayle in his place. But sounds like a memorable line. Thanks for your analysis.


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