Greenfield's Tips For A Successful Debate

Sen. Lloyd Bentsen, left, D-IN, and Sen. Dan Quayle, R-TX, shake hands after their vice presidential debate in Omaha, Neb., Oct. 5, 1988. AP Photo/Ron Edmonds

On the night of the first presidential debate between John McCain and Barack Obama, Jeff Greenfield gives a historical primer in how to make and score a point - and what to absolutely not do. It's this week's "The Good, The Bad and The Ugly."

The Good: The Right Words

If you're under attack, it's a good idea to have a quick comeback.

"There you go again," Ronald Reagan said in a 1984 debate.

If voters are wondering if you're too old for the job, take another cue from The Gipper.

"I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent's youth and inexperience," said Ronald Reagan.

If you're being accused of inexperience, take a hint from Ross Perot: "I've had no experience in running up a five trillion dollar debt."

And know your opponent's favorite arguments. So, for instance, Lloyd Bentsen knew that Dan Quayle sometimes compared his experience to John Kennedy's.

"Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine," Bentsen said. "Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy."

The Bad: Self-Inflicted Wounds

Now, here's what not to do. Do not declare a captive nation free - when it isn't: "I don't believe the Poles consider themselves dominated by the Soviet Union," said Gerald Ford in 1976.

Don't look at your watch. It suggests you can't wait to leave.

And remember when in a 2000 town hall meeting, Gore walked up behind Bush, who gave him dismissive look?

Don't "stalk" your opponent. It'll look weird.

The Ugly: Frozen Solid

Finally, if the audio goes out - as it did back in 1976 - don't stand rooted in silence at your podiums for 27 minutes.

If either Ford or Jimmy Carter had acted like a human being - with a laugh, chatting with the other guy, they might have won hands down.

And speaking of "ugly": Could this please be the year that no pundit declares that the candidates have to act "presidential"? What are they supposed to do - wear a stovepipe hat and grow a beard?
  • Jeff Greenfield

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