I am a political junkie and have been one since I was a teenager in Kenya during the height of the independence movement in that country. To give you a sense of how much of a political junkie I was even then, I attended a political gathering with my parents being addressed by Tom Mboya and Mwai Kibaki at a time when the release of Jomo Kenyatta was being sought from detention. ,After the speeches were over and hundreds of people were awaiting the departure of Mboya and Kibaki, I got around the police cordons and entered the building where Mboya and Kibaki were drinking tea after their speeches. I recall class mates of mine yelling out to me as I got through police cordon to get back but it did not stop me. What was my motivation? It was a time when I used to collect autographs and I wanted to get an autograph of Mboya. In the process I actually got two autographs of Mboya and one of Kibaki. I still have the autographs I collected that day around 1960! I was a rather precocious teenager. Kenyatta later became the first president of an independent Kenya, Mboya was a cabinet minister in Kenyatta’s government and was assassinated in circumstances that some feel was orchestrated by Kenyatta’s supporters who viewed Mboya as a threat and Kibaki went on to become the president of Kenya.

All of the above is to illustrate my interest in politics which continued when I moved to England for my higher studies, the stint I spent in India in 1970 and after I came to the US in 1971. I avidly follow debates that are part of the nomination process for president and then when the nominees have been selected, I follow the presidential debates.

Debates for the nomination and the presidency usually follow a fairly scripted format where there are few surprises. They therefore usually don’t have any game changing moments but once in a while something happens which becomes a decisive turning point in the process. Which brings me to yesterday’s debate to select the Republican nominee to run against Barack Obama – a debate that had precisely one of those moments which will doubtless be an instance of such a “game changer”.

Rick Perry, the governor of Texas, who upon his entry into the race for the nomination was viewed as a favorite among conservatives was discussing various ways of cutting federal expenses and he literally experienced a “brain freeze” and could not name one of the agencies he said was part of the plan. Of itself, it would likely not have been a disaster but coming as it did on top of several rather poor performances in prior debates, the video of his flubbing the answer went viral on Youtube and most pundits think that his chances of becoming the nominee are pretty much doomed. Here is the video of Perry’s gaffe:

Perry’s faux pas is one of several turning points in such debates over the years, starting with the debate between Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford in 1976 when the latter claimed that countries in Eastern Europe were not under Soviet domination and control. Carter seized on Ford’s stumble and it is widely regarded as one of the catalysts that doomed Ford’s attempt at re-election – the race was very close up to that point.


The vice presidential debate between Lloyd Bentsen and Dan Quayle in 1988 was an instance when Bentsen’s responded to Quayle’s assertion that his experience could be compared to that of JFK when Kennedy ran for the presidency and that therefore if something happened to the president he was qualified to assume the presidency. It was one of those put downs that was talked about for years and even to this day.


Debates are also used to blunt an issue that could be potentially damaging. Ronald Reagan faced such an issue in 1984 when there were concerns that because of his age he might not be able to handle the rigors of another four years as president. Reagan pretty much neutralized the issue with a witty repartee and thereafter it ceased to be an issue in that presidential election.


In 2000, it was Al Gore who was hurt in a debate with George W Bush when he repeatedly sighed audibly while Bush was responding to questions from the moderator and thereby making it appear that he was being condescending to Bush. The sighs combined with an almost intimidating move by Gore into Bush’s “space” when the latter was responding to a question was viewed unfavorably by viewers. Gore was apparently trying to throw Bush off keel by his action but it had the effect of Gore being viewed negatively.


In conclusion though most of these debates turn out to be non-events because they are so scripted, once in a while something happens that is unexpected and the net effect is that it ends up attracting so much attention that it can impact a close race.

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

2 Responses to “Turning points in presidential debates”

  1. Peter says:

    It’s been sometime since I have visited your blog and really enjoyed this posting, heard of all those debates you have the video clips on but watching them again was fun… because as Rick Perry would have said … “loved your blogs on 1)what’s in a name 2) goa machi kathore 3)umm…umm..oops” Y’know talking of recall I remember you mentioning about having the autograph book and having Tom Mboya’s and Kibaki’s but the posting reminded me of your treasure!

  2. Vyacheslav says:

    I like the valuable info you provide for your articles. I will bookmark your weblog and take a look at once more here regularly.

Leave a Reply

You can use these tags: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>