Presidential Debates, Then and Now

The first televised presidential debate occurred in 1960, as Vice President Richard Nixon took on Senator John F. Kennedy. Kennedy won the debate by a whisker. Literally, Nixon’s. Nixon forgot to shave before the debate and appeared before millions of voters with a heavy five o’clock shadow. He bore an unfortunate resemblance to Yasser Arafat.

While I was only eight years old, I watched the 1960 Kennedy-Nixon debate seated between a Democrat and a Republican. The Democrat was my father. He was what was known in Tennessee in my youth as a “Yeller Dog Democrat.” This was back in the days when Tennessee actually had Democrats. The Yeller Dog Democrat is now on the endangered species list.

The Republican was my mother. She was a Baptist Republican and was for Nixon because Kennedy was a Catholic. “If he gets elected, the Pope will be running America,” explained my mother.

Momma did not live to see Donald Trump get in a fight with the Pope. She is now in the Baptist section of Heaven, but I firmly believe that if she were still around, she would be rooting for The Donald in his fight with the Holy Father.

The next presidential debate occurred in the Bicentennial year of 1976 as a Georgia peanut farmer, Jimmy Carter, took on an old Michigan football player, Gerald Ford. The peanut farmer won that debate when the old Michigan football player fumbled, prematurely liberating Poland.

Four years later, in 1980, the Georgia peanut farmer lost a presidential debate and thereafter the election to a Hollywood movie star named Ronald Reagan. (His most memorable role was in “Bedtime for Bonzo.”)

In the 1992 presidential debate, President George Herbert Walker Bush impatiently looked at his watch while Bill Clinton told all of us, “I feel your pain.” Clinton won the election, and as it turned out, over the next eight years, our pain wasn’t the only thing he felt.

In 2000, Tennessee’s least-favorite son, Al Gore, stalked George Dubya Bush across the stage of a presidential debate. Dubya went on to win the closest presidential election in American history. He literally won it by one vote … Justice Scalia’s.

For over fifty years, presidential debates were very civil affairs. The candidates wore dark blue suits, white shirts, red ties, and tiny American flag lapel pins. They honestly discussed their differences in domestic and foreign policy, and never insulted each other.

But then came the 2016 presidential campaign debates. All 500 of them. In fact, ESPN will soon cancel ESPN’s Monday Night Football and replace it with ESPN’s Monday Night Presidential Debate, with Hank Williams Jr. singing, “Are You Ready for Some Insults?”

The 2016 presidential campaign debates actually began about two years ago, and have been about as civil as a World Wrestling Federation cage match.

Will Rogers once wrote, “When the Democrats form a firing squad, they stand in a circle.”

But it has been the Republican presidential debates over the last few months that have brought together the worse features of a divorce trial and a demolition derby.

Not coincidentally, the tone has been set by reality TV star Donald Trump. Throughout the debates, he has consistently referred to his opponents as “losers” and made fun of their appearances. Senator Marco Rubio has responded in kind, even suggesting that The Donald “may have wet his pants” during one of the debates. (Seriously, he really did say that.)

Texas Senator Ted Cruz has constantly referred to his opponents as “liars.” He reminds me of the “debates” that were held on the playground of my elementary school in the 1960s, when we would respond to taunts by crying out, “Liar! Liar! Pants on fire!”

I wouldn’t be at all surprised if in the next presidential debate Senator Cruz responds to a Trump insult by saying, “Well, I’m rubber and you’re glue. And what you say bounces off me and sticks on you!”

When he was covering the Scopes Monkey Trial for the Baltimore Sun, H. L. Mencken memorably wrote, “To call this trial a circus would be to offend bearded ladies and trapeze artists everywhere.”

Well, to call the 2016 presidential campaign debates a reality TV show would be to offend the Kardashians, Honey Boo Boo and the entire cast of Duck Dynasty.

The 2016 presidential debates have been so bad that I decided to give them up for Lent.

I don’t know what I’m going to do after Easter. I suspect that anytime these uncivil candidates appear on my TV screen, I’ll just grab my remote control channel changer and switch over to something civil like an episode of Maury, The Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling, or, of course, Duck Dynasty.
 


Bill Haltom BILL HALTOM is a shareholder with the firm of Lewis Thomason. He is a past president of the Tennessee Bar Association and a past president of the Memphis Bar Association. Read his blog at www.billhaltom.com.

Haltom’s new book, Milk & Sugar: The Complete Story of Seersucker, is out from Nautilus Publishing. Learn more or pre-order at www.nautiluspublishing.com.

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