Saturday, October 5, 2013

'You're No Jack Kennedy'

"Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy."

Lloyd Bentsen
Vice presidential debate
Oct. 5, 1988

In the annals of vice presidential debates, there are few chapters — so the competition for the most memorable moment isn't too great.

But if I had to choose the most memorable moment in a vice presidential debate, I would have to pick the moment 25 years ago tonight when Democratic Sen. Lloyd Bentsen of Texas told Republican Sen. Dan Quayle of Indiana that he was no Jack Kennedy.

As I say, there isn't much competition for most memorable moment from a vice presidential debate. I suppose you could include some moments from the 1992 debate — but they were really more noteworthy for what they said about the ill–prepared Admiral Stockdale, who mused, "Who am I? Why am I here?" and muttered something about a "ping pong match."

Otherwise, though, there really isn't much.

The Bentsen–Quayle debate remains famous — or infamous, depending upon one's point of view — because of one line — Bentsen's famous putdown of Quayle.

It was devastating.

My memory of that debate is not of the pre–debate expectations. Bentsen, more than a quarter of a century older than Quayle, had more than 20 years of congressional experience under his belt (and went on to serve as Treasury secretary under Bill Clinton); it was believed by many that he compensated for Michael Dukakis' relative lack of experience.

Quayle, on the other hand, had a little more than a decade of congressional experience, and there was a perception that he lacked the maturity to take over as president if necessary.

It was generally treated as a given that Bentsen was more qualified to be president than was Quayle. That was the elephant in the living room on this night 25 years ago. It made expectations impossibly high for Bentsen and absurdly low for Quayle.

Based on pre–debate comments I heard, all Quayle had to do was show up to exceed expectations while Bentsen needed to do something almost messianic to avoid being perceived a failure.

From the very start, Quayle was put on the defensive when he was asked why he had "not made a more substantial impression" on voters.

It was clear at times that he had prepared statements in advance that he planned to use when the topic of qualifications came up, and he used one early: "If qualifications alone are going to be the issue in this campaign, George Bush has more qualifications than Michael Dukakis and Lloyd Bentsen combined."

Of course, both candidates had lines they had been working on for their single debate. Quayle's qualification to be president had been a subject of discussion since Vice President George H.W. Bush chose him to be his running mate. Everyone knew that the issue of experience would dominate the questioning. And it did.

Bentsen was eager to fan the flames. "This debate tonight is not about the qualifications for the vice presidency," he said early. "The debate is whether or not Dan Quayle and Lloyd Bentsen are qualified to be president of the United States."

The memorable moment came about halfway through when Tom Brokaw asked Quayle to "cite the experience that you had in Congress."

Quayle said he had as much congressional experience as John F. Kennedy had when he sought the presidency in 1960, which was technically correct, but it set up Bentsen better than he probably ever dreamed during his debate prep. In hindsight — possibly as soon as that moment — I concluded that Bentsen had that line ready, that it was not spontaneous, and he was planning to spring it — or something similar — when the time was right.

Quayle's comparison of himself to Kennedy was the right time. And Bentsen jumped on it like Babe Ruth swinging at an underhanded pitch. He probably couldn't believe his good fortune.

"You're no Jack Kennedy." The mind recalls the image of Quayle's face on the television screen as Bentsen's voice could be heard delivering the line. Quayle had that "caught in the headlights" look on his face — or, at least, that is how it was perceived at the time. My own opinion is that it was the look of one who knows the die has been cast.

Quayle protested that Bentsen's comment was uncalled for. Bentsen replied that it had been Quayle who invited the comparison.

Nothing else that was said that night mattered. Bentsen had won the debate. Print journalists had their lead paragraph, and broadcast journalists had their sound bite.

And Bentsen had his triumph, but it was Quayle who had the last laugh. A month later, the Bush–Quayle ticket defeated the Dukakis–Bentsen ticket in a landslide.

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