Vice-Presidential Debates Replayed (Part 1)

Vice President Joe Biden and Republican Rep. Paul Ryan meet tomorrow at Centre College in Danville, Kentucky for their only debate, continuing a tradition of just one encounter between the major party nominees for vice president.

Our retrospective of previous vice-presidential debates focuses on highlights and post-debate reaction from some of the participants. This first installment focuses on 1976, 1984, 1988 and 1992. A second installment will look at the debates in 1996, 2000, 2004 and 2008.

1976: The first televised vice-presidential debate pitted two senators. Minnesota Democrat Walter F. Mondale ran with Jimmy Carter and Kansas Republican Bob Dole was President Gerald R. Ford’s choice to replace Vice President Nelson Rockefeller on the ticket.

The debate’s most memorable moment came when Dole answered a question about Ford’s pardon of former President Richard Nixon by referring to World War II and armed conflicts in Korea and Vietnam as “Democrat wars.” Mondale responded that Dole “richly earned his reputation as a hatchet man.”

Mondale wrote in a memoir that he thought Dole’s “acerbic style, which worked well in a press conference or on the Senate floor, would come off poorly in a debate.” Mondale also said he didn’t believe an adviser who said during debate preparations that Dole might use the “Democrat wars” line.

Dole later said he wished he hadn’t used the line, according to Jim Lehrer, the PBS journalist who interviewed almost all of the presidential and vice-presidential nominees about their debates. Ford “had sort of the Rose Garden strategy and I was out in the briar patch,” Dole said.


1980: There was no debate held between Vice President Mondale and George H.W. Bush, who ran on a winning ticket with Ronald Reagan.

1984: Vice President Bush squared off against Geraldine Ferraro, a three-term representative from Queens whom Mondale picked as the first woman to run on a major-party ticket. She told Lehrer she felt a “rather unique” responsibility and was “standing in for millions of women in this country.”

“If I messed up,” Ferraro said, “I was messing it up for them.”

Ferraro chafed at the debate preparations, which she said “seemed like such a waste of my time, and everybody else’s as well,” according to her memoir. Her debate preparations included watching the Jimmy Stewart movie Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, according to a book by Alan Schroeder, a journalism professor at Northeastern University in Boston. Ferraro said she fell asleep during the movie.

Perhaps the most memorable moment of the debate came when Ferraro accused Bush of a “patronizing attitude that you have to teach me about foreign policy.” She was responding to a Bush statement, “let me help you with the difference, Mrs. Ferraro,” between the Iran hostage crisis during the Carter presidency and the 1983 bombing of a Marine barracks in Lebanon that killed more than 200 U.S. military personnel.

Bush drew headlines the next day in New Jersey, where he told a group of longshoremen that “we tried to kick a little ass last night” in the debate. Bush, who didn’t know his comment was captured by a microphone, said his boast was an “old Texas football expression.”


1988: Lloyd Bentsen etched a place in debate lore with his comeback f0r Dan Quayle, the 41-year-old Indiana senator who was a surprise running-mate choice by Bush.

Responding to a question from NBC’s Tom Brokaw — the third time during the debate that a panelist asked about the Republican’s qualifications — Quayle said that he had as much experience in Congress as John F. Kennedy did when he ran for president in 1960. (Quayle was close: he had 12 years of experience in the House and Senate, compared to Kennedy’s 14 years.)

Bentsen pounced. “Senator,” he said to Quayle, “I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.” After Democrats applauded, Quayle said Bentsen’s barb was “really uncalled for.” Bentsen replied that Quayle made the comparison to Kennedy, adding, “I did not think the comparison was well taken.”

Quayle told Lehrer that Bentsen’s statement “was a good line” and that it would hurt him “in the long run, yes, because you guys keep running it over and over again.” Asked about his famous comeback in 1992, Bentsen said, “I wish now I had copyrighted it and was getting royalty on it,” according to Lehrer.


1992: The only three-candidate vice presidential debate in history included Quayle, running for re-election with Bush; Democrat Al Gore, then a Tennessee senator aligned with Bill Clinton; and James Stockdale, a retired Navy vice admiral running on a ticket with independent Ross Perot.

It was probably the most raucous and free-wheeling vice-presidential debate. Quayle and Gore sometimes spoke over one another, leading Stockdale to observe that he felt like he was watching a game of ping-pong.

“Who am I? Why am I here?” the little-known Stockdale asked to audience laughter.


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