The Internet can be a dangerous place for politicians, as Dick Cheney learned in the vice presidential debate in October 2004. Cheney came under attack from opponent John Edwards for his association with Halliburton, an oil company that won contracts in Iraq. Cheney urged viewers to visit FactCheck.com, a respected fact checking website, to learn the truth. He meant to say FactCheck.org—and that tiny mistake had big consequences. The site he refered viewers to redirected to a page that read “Why we must not re-elect President Bush: A personal message from George Soros.”
In 1984, Republican president Ronald Reagan was seeking a second term. On October 7 he faced off against Democratic opponent Walter Mondale in a televised debate. Asked why he didn’t attend church services regularly, Reagan responded, “I have gone to church regularly all my life, and I started to here in Washington.” The problem, of course, was that the debate was held in Louisville, Kentucky. Seventy-three years old at the time, Reagan was the oldest president to have ever served. In retrospect, some believe that Reagan’s confusion may have been related to his Alzheimer’s disease, which wasn’t diagnosed until 10 years later.
The list wouldn’t be complete without a mention of the October 6, 1976, debate between incumbent Gerald Ford and Democratic challenger Jimmy Carter. Jaws dropped across the nation when Ford talked about Europe. “There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe, and there never will be under a Ford administration.” He added, “I don’t believe that the Poles consider themselves dominated by the Soviet Union.” This was big news to viewers—because Soviet rule of Poland didn’t end until 1989. Ford’s comment was so far removed from the Cold War reality, that it made the public wonder whether Ford was out of touch. It remains one of the biggest blunders in debate history.
George H.W. Bush
When debating on live T.V., be sure to watch your every move. President George H.W. Bush learned that rule the hard way, when he debated Bill Clinton in October 1992. The debate focused on the poor state of the economy, and Clinton emphasized his ordinary background and understanding of the plight of the average American. Bush, meanwhile, earned notice for repeatedly checking his watch throughout the evening. This simple act made viewers feel their concerns weren’t important to Bush, and did more to hurt him than anything he said in the debate.
We can’t ignore the current round of debates, especially since it’s given us one moment so uncomfortable it may have led to the undoing of a once-popular candidate: Texas governor Rick Perry. In a November 7 debate, Perry said that, as President, he would shut down three federal agencies, an idea that would appeal to his conservative base. “And I will tell you, it is three agencies of government when I get there that are gone. Commerce, Education, and the… what’s the third one there? Let’s see.” Perry stumbled, but he couldn’t work his way through the epic brainfreeze. “I can’t. The third one, I can’t. Sorry. Oops,” he said.