Slashing one-liner could stop hapless candidate cold
By Lauren Santander
The Post and Courier
Friday, September 26, 2008
--In 1988, during a debate between GOP vice presidential candidate Dan Quayle and his Democratic counterpart, Lloyd Bentsen, a reporter asked Quayle about his relative lack of political experience. Quayle answered that he had as much experience as John F. Kennedy did when he sought the presidency in 1960. When it was Bentsen's turn to respond, he calmly said, "Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mind. Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy."
--During one of the Lincoln-Douglas debates, Stephen Douglas told their conservative audience that he had once seen Lincoln selling whiskey. When it was his turn to speak, Lincoln made no attempt to dispute the charge. He agreed that he had once worked as a bartender. "I was on one side of the bar serving drinks," he said, "and Douglas was on the other side, drinking them."
--When President Ronald Reagan ran for a second term in 1984, he was in his 70s, and critics questioned whether he had the vitality for the office. During a television debate between Reagan and his Democratic challenger, Walter Mondale, a reporter raised the issue of age to Reagan. "I want you to know that I will not make age an issue of this campaign," Reagan replied. "I am not going to exploit for political purposes my opponent's youth and inexperience."
The mounting interest surrounding the first presidential debate between Sen. Barack Obama and Sen. John McCain presents a historic opportunity for one of the candidates to deliver a verbal knock-out or a zinging one-liner.
After all, a good comeback can hobble a political foe and garner the speaker free exposure when the quip is endlessly replayed on cable news. In the YouTube age, the potential for a catchy comment to go viral is even greater.
Chris Lamb, professor of communication at the College of Charleston, said that both candidates have a chance to sneak in a jab, but to be effective it needs to be short and offensive and leave the other candidate searching for dignity.
"In the dog-eat-dog world of politics, you want to make your opponent a fire hydrant," said Lamb, author of the book "I'll Be Sober in the Morning: Great Political Comebacks, Putdowns, and Ripostes."
South Carolina's own, former Sen. Fritz Hollings, scored one memorable line during a forum for Democratic candidates in 1984. After Sen. John Glenn talked at length about his historic orbital flight as an astronaut in 1962, Hollings asked: "But what have you done in this world?"
Still, a badly timed or poorly delivered quip can backfire on a candidate, Lamb said.
"If it goes off script, people in the audience might think you're too mean, or worse, stupid," he said. "No one wants to look like a Dan Quayle."
In the 1988 vice presidential debate, Quayle famously compared himself to John F. Kennedy, drawing a biting rebuke from his opponent, Lloyd Bentsen.
Charles Bierbauer, dean of the College of Mass Communications and Information at the University of South Carolina, said that a good comeback can show voters that a candidate has a sense of humor, which can make them appear more genuine.
"People want to see and respond to a real human being," said Bierbauer, who worked as a CNN White House correspondent for 20 years. "They want to see someone respond to an unexpected question."
Self-depricating humor also can make a candidate seem sympathetic and make an audience laugh, both of which can help get them elected, Lamb said.
"We vote for who we like," he said. "Laughter is a wonderful bond."
Reach Lauren Santander at firstname.lastname@example.org.