BLOG: The Bentsen-Quayle debate 20 years later
Channel 5 News -- Charleston, SC
Oct 2, 2008 05:01 PM EDT
Twenty years ago, Republican presidential candidate George H.W. Bush selected little-known Indiana Senator Dan Quayle as his running mate. The youthful Quayle tried to dismiss concerns about his inexperience by saying that he had as much experience as John F. Kennedy did when JFK ran for president in 1960.
Quayle's advisers cautioned him against using the JFK comparison during his nationally televised debate with Democratic vice presidential candidate Lloyd Bentsen on Oct. 5, 1988. Quayle ignored the advice.
When it was Bentsen's turn to respond, he turned to Quayle and 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."
Bush and Quayle won the election. But Bentsen's putdown will forever be etched in American politics. The Bentsen-Quayle exchange serves as a cautionary tale, particularly for vice presidential candidates Sarah Palin and Joe Biden, as they prepare for their debate on Thursday.
With so much at stake, neither Palin not Biden want to be on the Quayle end of a putdown. Being a running mate means never having to say you're sorry.
According to popular belief, vice presidential candidates don't win debates, they only lose them. But this simply isn't true. As Bentsen demonstrated, the ability to deliver a sharp riposte can be a potent political weapon.
During a 1992 debate between Quayle and Al Gore, the Democratic vice presidential candidate, it was suggested that President Bush, while serving as vice president during the Reagan administration, had played a considerable role in ending the Cold War.
"George Bush taking credit for the Berlin Wall coming down is like a rooster taking credit for the sunshine," Gore responded.
When Republican vice presidential candidate Dick Cheney debated Joe Lieberman, Gore's running mate, in 2000, Lieberman responded to the high salary that Cheney had made as an executive for Haliburton by suggesting that he, too, had considered giving up public office for the private sector.
"I'll try to help you do that," Cheney responded.
Cheney's remark revealed that Cheney indeed had a sense of humor - something that had thus far been rumored but had never before been witnessed.
If either Palin or Biden wants to have to have the last laugh on Election Day, they don't want to end up a punch line in their debate on Thursday. Nor can they afford having voters asking the same questions independent candidate Ross Perot's running mate Admiral Robert Stockdale asked the American people during the 1992 vice presidential debate. "Who am I?" Stockdale said. "Why am I here?"
Chris Lamb, associate professor of Communication at the College of Charleston in Charleston, SC. Chris Lamb is the author of I'll Be Sober in the Morning: Great Political Comebacks, Putdowns, and Ripostes