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Zapping Apathy with Presidential Debates

Students experience a presidential campaign only one time during their high school years. Although politics might seem more like the domain of our Social Studies colleagues, campaigns provide plenty to talk about in English/Language Arts classes too. What better way to focus on campaign rhetoric and persuasive techniques than through the presidential debate series? Students frequently assume the debates will be older guys in suits talking about boring stuff. To a certain extent, that assumption is correct. But the debates are inherently adversarial, and conflict of this kind can be interesting if students learn to zero in on the drama. Here are the clips I like to show in class to provide students with some context for the current round of presidential debates, along with some background to share.

This 1960 Kennedy-Nixon debate set the template for everything that came after. Former Vice-President Richard Nixon looks like he’s ready to pass out; he was actually a little under the weather. You can see Nixon mop his upper lip at 2:10. Senator John Kennedy, on the other hand, looks cool and confident. Those who heard the debate on the radio thought Nixon won, but those who watched it on those new-fangled televisions were wowed by Kennedy.

In 1976, President Ford had a complete brain fart in his debate with Jimmy Carter as he claimed that Eastern Europe was not under Soviet domination. 21st century students might need some help with the context on this one.

Four years later, President Jimmy Carter was laid out by former California governor Ronald Reagan with just four words. The ultra-serious Carter could not deflect Reagan’s folksy “There you go again.”

Flash forward four more years to 1984, and President Reagan—the oldest man to serve as president—was questioned about whether his age (73) was an issue. His opponent, former Vice-President Walter Mondale, then age 56, could do nothing but laugh at Reagan’s well-played response.

The best debate moment of the 1988 campaign came during the vice-presidential debate between Senator Lloyd Bentsen, the running mate of Democrat Michael Dukakis, and Senator Dan Quayle, the running mate of then-Vice-President George H. W. Bush. Senator Quayle, then 39 years old, had been deflecting concerns about his age by saying that he was about the same age as John Kennedy when he campaigned for the presidency. Senator Bentsen, John Kennedy’s senate colleague in the 1950s, didn’t take too well to that comparison.

This 1992 clip is more of a study in style than substance. You can see President Bush check his watch at the beginning of this clip. Then a questioner tries to get President George H. W. Bush, Governor Bill Clinton, (and Texas billionaire Ross Perot) to describe the effects of the recession. Bush fumbles it; Clinton nails it.

When Vice-President Al Gore and Texas Governor George W. Bush debated in 2000, we saw two of the most unappealing candidates ever try to outsmart-aleck each other. If all you ever knew about these candidates was what you saw here, who would you vote for?

On the day after a debate, be sure to debrief. Ask students about their perceptions. Resist the urge to impose your own views. Let them talk, question, and learn from each other. Help your students find the balance between the seriousness of the issues facing our country and the fascinating fun inherent in a campaign.

More clips are here from our friends at C-SPAN. A pretty decent scorecard graphic organizer is here, also from C-SPAN.

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