On Monday, the 26th September, Clinton and Trump will engage in the first of three national televised presidential debates. Anyone who caught the back-and-forth between Trump and Jeb or Trump and Cruz or Trump and Rubio during the Republican primaries will understand just how pivotal these forums can be. Simple gaffes can destroy a candidate’s legitimacy. Poor phrasing can undermine a crucial point they want to convey. Even the wrong body language can result in severe repercussions. So what should Clinton and Trump take note of? We here at the Walrus thought it would be worth taking a trip down memory lane.
Kennedy vs. Nixon (1960)
This race heralded the first national televised debate, as the young and charismatic John F. Kennedy squared off against the raging jowls of Richard M. Nixon. Whilst many Americans, listening to the debate on their radios, felt that the Vice-President succeeded in offering a better vision for America, the television viewers felt differently. A wearisome, sick Nixon simply came off as less confident and able on the black-and-white screen. Kennedy, on the other hand, understood this medium in the way FDR understood how the radio could be used to communicate. He spoke clearly and held himself firmly- a man who was comfortable with nothing to hide.
Trump, of course, is no stranger to the televised medium and despite his outlandish hairdo, comes across as quite a unique and exciting figure to beheld. Hillary however, whilst experienced, often appears stiff and calculated, like she’s reading from a prompter.
Ford vs. Carter (1976)
Jerry Ford was one of the most affable presidents America ever had. He didn’t boast the sharpest of wits however, as evident in one of his and Carter’s national televised debates, when he stated that “there is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe.” Carter wryly smiled whilst the stunned moderator, Max Frankel, responded, “I’m sorry. What?…” This performance only served to reflect and reaffirm the credibility of Chevy Chase’s SNL Ford; a bumbling, awkward man barely getting on by in the job. It may have been a just a little slip, but it cost Ford dearly in the media and public’s perception of him. Trump, in particular, should take note here. He may have gotten away with his random gesticulations in the primaries but Clinton, unlike most the GOP, is hawkish and ready to pounce on any little mis-step.
Carter vs. Reagan/ Mondale vs. Reagan (1980 and 1984)
Ronald Reagan was hardly the smartest of US presidents either but he was a great communicator. He had a way of brushing off criticism and making his opponents feel a bit overbearing. Against Carter, we saw this when he said “there you go again,” in response to a criticism the President made about Reagan’s stance on a past healthcare bill. Against Mondale, we saw this when he quipped “I will not make age an an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.” In that brilliant soundbite, he not only pushed aside any genuine concerns about his age, but also posed a good counterpoint and reinforced his likability as a humorous man. So if Hillary could crack a few more lines like “you heard none of this at the Republican convention and Trump went on for 70-odd minutes- and they were odd,” that would be just dandy. This kind of reflex is perfect for the Youtube generation.
Bush I vs. Clinton vs. Perot (1992)
Don’t look at your watch! The Commander-in-Chief George HW Bush made this fatal error in a three-way debate against Slick Willy and a more credulous billionaire than Trump. While Bush may have had pressing matters on his hands, this quick, likely subconscious act, reflected the media’s perception of him as a man both out-of-touch with/ not interested in the common man. Bill, in contrast, not only didn’t get distracted, he stood up and walked out from the center of the stage to make eye contact with the people asking questions. He is of course, in a league of his own, but it’s worth noting nonetheless that you must always respect the time given for these debates, even if they are repetitive and pointless.
Gore vs. Bush II (2000)
To borrow a term from W’s lexicon, Al Gore misunderestimated his opponent. Whilst the second Bush was clearly nowhere near as clever as the Vice-President, he did manage to come across to a great many people as a likable and relatable individual. Gore tried to pounce on his basic understanding of the issues with a multitude of condescending mannerisms. At one point, he walked over to Bush as if to confront him man-to-man on a question he felt he gave the better answer to. At another point, he loudly sighed. It’s not exactly fair but the public do like an underdog and in this case, they gave Bush II enough wriggle room for the contentious count-up that followed. In this year’s case, it may be tempting for Hillary to act this exact same way, but there is a line between humouring your base and offending the other. Reagan understood this; Gore didn’t.
And so Clinton and Trump should now be well prepared for September 26th if they have read this. Naturally we have only scratched the surface but it is clear from these cases that a winning personality and sharp wit does the job best. Hillary has the latter and to some- let’s call them progressively challenged people- Trump boasts the former. We may be given stiff, unintelligible, and ambiguous answers next week but one thing’s for sure, the entertainment factor will be huuuuuge.