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QUIZ: Presidential Debates — Encounters That Make, and Break, Candidates

The drama surrounding the coming August 23 Republican presidential debate is a reminder of how high the stakes can be when candidates face off in front of the nation. Just how much do you know about these all-important encounters in America’s political past? Test your knowledge with this short, fun quiz.

1. What is generally considered the forerunner of today’s modern debates?

A. The 1787 debate over the U.S. Constitution

B. The 1858 Lincoln-Douglas debates

C. The 1902 debate over the Panama Canal

D. None of the above

Answer: B. Democrat Stephen Douglas and Republican Abraham Lincoln squared off in seven debates during their Illinois U.S. Senate seat contest, each lasting three hours(!). 

2. When the tradition was revived in the landmark 1960 Kennedy-Nixon debates, a new element was added with the arrival of what technology?

A. Newspapers

B. Radio

C. Television

D. Satellites

Answer: C. Though television was still in its infancy, a survey found voters who listened to the debates on the radio thought Richard Nixon had won, while TV viewers gave the win to John F. Kennedy. That played a decisive role in November’s presidential election, one of the closest in U.S. history.

3. Presidential debates went on hiatus until being revived by Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter in 1976, with a new wrinkle added. What was it?

A. They were shown in movie theaters

B. They were broadcast in the Soviet Union

C. They were held weekly until Election Day

D. They included a vice-presidential debate

Answer: D. Democrat Walter Mondale debated Republican Bob Dole in the first such encounter between running mates.

4. A major squabble in the 1980 campaign upset the entire debate schedule, resulting in incumbent Jimmy Carter skipping the first contest. What was the source of the disagreement?

A. Allowing an independent third candidate to participate

B. A dispute over the moderator

C. Argument over the panel that would ask questions

D. A delay in televising the debate

Answer: A. The League of Women Voters, which hosted the event, allowed independent candidate John Anderson to participate. Carter skipped it in protest, leaving Anderson and Republican Ronald Reagan. After intense negotiations, Carter and Reagan debated one on one on Oct. 28, one week before Election Day. 

5. During their second debate of the 1984 presidential election, incumbent Ronald Reagan pledged he was “not going to exploit, for political purposes,” his opponent Walter Mondale’s …

A. “Liberal political record.”

B. “Questionable business practices.”

C. “Youth and inexperience.”

D. “Decision to avoid the draft.”

Answer: C. Reagan was 73, which, at the time, was considered old. His poor performance in the first debate raised the age issue. Mondale later said that after Reagan delivered that line, he knew the election was over. Reagan went on to win 49 states.

6. During a vice-presidential debate, Sen. Lloyd Bentsen, D-Texas, told his opponent, “Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine … you’re no Jack Kennedy.” He was speaking to:

A. George H.W. Bush

B. Paul Ryan

C. Ted Kennedy

D. Dan Quayle

Answer: D. Sen. Dan Quayle (R-Ind.) was 41 when 1988 GOP nominee George H.W. Bush tapped him to be his vice president. When asked if he had the experience to serve, Quayle invoked the example of JFK — perhaps one time too many.

POWELL: Remembering Bob Dole

The last time I talked with Bob Dole it was nearing sunset on a glorious late October afternoon in 1988. On that occasion, he displayed his trademark trait, the quality that brought him attention and, all too often, got him in trouble: His sense of humor.

It’s a quality most politicians highly value, but which is sadly lacking in today’s political arena.

It all began on Monday, March 7, 1988. I was a young TV reporter and the Kansas senator was campaigning for the Republican presidential nomination. (His second of three tries.) Dole was doing a “fly around” on the eve of the next day’s Super Tuesday when 20 states (and American Samoa) would hold their primaries and caucuses. I was waiting when his plane touched down in Cape Girardeau, Missouri, which would be voting the next day.

Dole walked up to me on the tarmac, extended his left hand, and said, “Hi, Bob Dole. How am I looking here tomorrow?” I told him my father and then-fiancé were planning on voting for him. He asked, “What about you?” I smiled and with suitable vagueness for a journalist answered, “We’ll see.”

Fast forward seven months to the lovely late Indian summer evening I mentioned earlier. Dole was doing yet another round of fly-around interviews, this time on behalf of George H. W. Bush, the Republican nominee, who would be facing Democrat Michael Dukakis at the ballot box a few days later.

Once again there was the outstretched left hand and the friendly greeting. “Hello, I’m Bob Dole,” he said. He did not remember me. Not that I expected he would. I was one of literally hundreds of reporters he had spoken to since our last encounter. And let’s be honest: When you’ve met one reporter, you’ve met them all.

Still, I prompted his memory, hoping it might spark a faint recollection. “Yes, we met here at this very airport last March on the day before Super Tuesday. I told you my father and fiancé were voting for you.”

Dole instantly shot back: “You needed a bigger family.”

That lightning-quick retort was witty, slightly self-deprecating, even a tad charming. It was vintage Bob Dole.

There were times—a lot of times, in fact—when his sense of humor landed him in hot water. There were occasions when he went too far, when the joke was more ferocious than funny, more dour than droll.

You certainly didn’t want to be on the receiving end of his tongue when he was angry, either. Remember what he famously snapped at Bush on live TV during the heat of the ’88 primary campaign? “Stop lying about my record.”

And it didn’t take a psychiatrist to see much disappointment was festering just below the surface, hurts that often came out in ways that bordered on self-pity. That less-than-flattering side of his personality was brilliantly captured in Dan Aykroyd’s devastatingly spot-on “Saturday Night Live” impersonation.

Yet there was far more of the “good Dole” humor than the bad. It was filled with warmth, even a passion, that made this most inside of all Washington Insiders human and approachable. You may not agree with what he said, but you couldn’t keep a smile from spreading across your face when you heard him say it.

Much has changed about politics in general and Washington in particular since Dole’s day. Jocularity has gone the way of the dodo. What passes for humor today is using laughter to belittle the opposition. Politicians rarely, if ever, make fun of themselves anymore. In a climate where everyone sees themselves as utterly right and everyone who disagrees with them as totally wrong, DC is now as merry as Josef Stalin’s Moscow.

That’s truly a pity. Because in an age when there is so little to be amused about, a little laughter would go a long way. Our political leaders could lead by example by laughing at themselves, their flaws, foibles, and failures a little more often.

“You needed a bigger family.” Thanks for the chuckle, Senator Dole. It’s still making me smile 33 years later.

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