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Great Debates in History: The Bentsen-Quayle Vice Presidential Debate, October 1988

by Erik Fogel | Nov 9, 2017 9:00:00 AM |

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Whether a vice-presidential debate falls into the category of one of the great debates in history is, of course, debatable. These in-between debates have rarely served any other purpose than to introduce the heir apparent to the office. Also, it helps the electorate judge whether the candidate is of potential presidential caliber if the incumbent has to leave office early.  Nevertheless, the Bentsen-Quayle vice-presidential debate is memorable because of a breathtaking putdown that probably won the debate for Bentsen. View Debate - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=99-v2Farbjs

No two candidates for the office presented a more dramatic contrast than Senators Lloyd Bentsen and Dan Quayle. Bentsen was the quintessential courtly senator who seemed to look down his patrician nose at his young, brash, and plain-spoken Midwestern foe, Dan Quayle.

The establishment’s view of Quayle as unqualified and untested quickly surfaced in moderator Judy Woodruff’s opening question:

“…Just last week former Secretary of State Haig said that your pick was the dumbest call George Bush could have made. Your leader in the Senate...Bob Dole said that a better-qualified person could have been chosen.”

Quayle, obviously prepared for this question highlighted his accomplishments and experience:

“I have more experience than others that have sought the office…I wrote the Job Training Partnership Act…I have worked eight years on the Senate Budget Committee…”

Then in a deft display of changing the focus, Quayle achieved an applause line when he quipped, “And if qualifications alone are going to be the issue in this campaign, George Bush has more qualifications than Michael Dukakis and Lloyd Bentsen combined.”

In response to continual questioning about his qualifications from the panel, Quayle appeared to overplay his hand and made the statement that prompted a stinging retort from Bentsen, which elicited prolonged applause:

Quayle:  I have as much experience in the Congress as Jack Kennedy did when he sought the presidency…

Bentsen: Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy, I knew Jack Kennedy, Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you are no Jack Kennedy. 

Quayle: That was really uncalled for, Senator.

Bentsen: You are the one that was making the comparison, Senator - and I'm one who knew him well. And, frankly, I think you are so far apart in the objectives you choose for your country that I did not think the comparison was well-taken.

So, Bentsen was not only able to get in a personal dig, but also articulated his reasons for his belief that Quayle was inappropriately comparing himself to a Democrat icon. Even so, the top of the Democratic ticket, Mike Dukakis was unable to shake off Republican charges that he was a tax-and-spend liberal, who was also soft on crime.

Bentsen’s performance notwithstanding, the American electorate crossed their fingers and elected George H.W. Bush in hopes that Dan Quayle, who turned in a deer-in-the-headlights debate performance, would not be called to duty.

So, the foregoing example is how one deft debate retort can be remembered longer than the debate itself. If there is a lesson here for young debaters it is this: avoid inappropriate bragging. It opens the door to ridicule disguised as an honest retort.

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