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Debates can reveal the best - and worst

Published August 07. 2014 4:00AM

Tuesday's debate between Betsy Ritter and Bill Satti, running in next week's primary for the Democratic nomination for state Senate in the 20th District, featured a civilized exchange between two likeable candidates who agreed on most points and refrained from mudslinging, name-calling and other insults that most voters claim to abhor.

Mr. Satti summed it up best: "There's not a lot of difference between us."

While this newspaper respects Mrs. Ritter and Mr. Satti for their polite tone, and though we often decry negative campaigning and attack ads, we do enjoy a spirited debate. Often lively interplay leads to good politics - but sometimes it just makes for good theater.

Either way there have been some memorable dialectics between politicians - most notably the Lincoln-Douglas Debates of 1858, a series of seven exchanges between Republican Abraham Lincoln and Democrat Stephen Douglas, who were running for the Senate in Illinois.

Mr. Lincoln quipped that Mr. Douglas "made a horse chestnut into a chestnut horse," and called his opponent's Freeport Doctrine a do-nothing sovereignty that was "as thin as the homeopathic soup that was made by boiling the shadow of a pigeon that had starved to death."

Despite these witticisms Mr. Lincoln lost that Senate race to Mr. Douglas, but two years later defeated him in the presidential election.

Presidential debates were first televised in 1960, when many viewers were as attracted by John F. Kennedy's charismatic charm and boyish good looks as they were repelled by Richard M. Nixon's sweaty brow and heavy five-o'clock shadow. Most historians consider that first debate a turning point in the election and in presidential politics.

Over the next 50-plus years of televised debates there have been some singular moments in which candidates have either done in their opponents or done themselves in:

• A week before the 1980 election Jimmy Carter launched a lengthy harangue of Ronald Reagan's record regarding Medicare and Social Security. Mr. Reagan merely chuckled and replied, "There you go again."

• Four years later Mr. Reagan, then 73 years old, took on Walter Mondale.

"I want you to know 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," he said.

• The biggest put-down came in a vice-presidential debate in 1988, when Republican Dan Quayle claimed he had "as much experience as Jack Kennedy did, when he sought the presidency."

His Democratic opponent, Lloyd Bentsen replied, "Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy."

• At the start of another vice-presidential debate, in 1992, Vietnam war hero Admiral James Stockdale, the running mate of the independent presidential candidate H. Ross Perot, stared at the camera and achieved immortality with the opening comment, "Who am I? Why am I here?"

• Another celebrated warrior, John McCain, had a grimace-inducing moment during the 2008 presidential debate when he disdainfully referred to Barack Obama as "that one." Later, at a dinner both candidates attended, Mr. Obama joked, "What you may not know is 'Barack' is actually Swahili for 'that one.'"

• During a 2007 debate leading up to the 2008 election, Democrat Joe Biden took a shot at former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who was seeking the GOP nomination.

"There's only three things he mentions in a sentence - a noun and a verb and 9/11," he said.

• During a 2007 Democratic debate among presidential hopefuls, Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich elaborated on reports he had once seen a UFO.

"It was an unidentified flying object, OK? It's, like, it's unidentified," he said.

• Hands down, though, the biggest blunder was delivered by Texas Gov. Rick Perry in 2011 when, during a debate among other Republicans seeking the presidential nomination, he attempted to explain his plans for downsizing the federal government.

"It's three agencies of government when I get there that are gone - Commerce, Education and the um, what's the third one there? Let's see ... Commerce, Education and the um, um," Perry said.

Mitt Romney, standing nearby, suggested, "Environmental Protection Agency."

"EPA, there you go," Mr. Perry said.

Then he quickly changed his mind, saying the EPA doesn't need to be eliminated but simply rebuilt. But the Texas governor still couldn't come up with the other agency.

"The third agency of government I would do away with - the education, the uh, the commerce and let's see. I can't the third one. I can't. Sorry. Oops."

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