HOUSTON -- Here’s a curious piece of political trivia from this year’s presidential debates.
Even if they don’t produce any memorable moments, the 2012 debates between the Democratic and Republican candidates for president are an unusual phenomenon for one little-noticed reason. Neither of the candidates standing behind the podiums is a Texan.
In the history of these televised presidential confrontations, Texans have been on the ticket in seven of eleven debate years.
During four of those election years -- 1988, 1992, 2000 and 2004 -- a Texan named Bush was running for president. And in the era of televised debates, Texans ran for vice-president during four election years -- 1960, 1980, 1984 and 1988.
So Texans have played a major role in shaping how Americans remember presidential debates, even when they haven’t topped the ticket.
“I think everyone agrees that the most dramatic moment, if you include vice-presidential debates, was Lloyd Bentsen’s take down of Dan Quayle,” said David Berg, a Houston attorney who may be the city’s most experienced political-debate coach. Berg has worked on debate preparation for four Houston mayors and President Jimmy Carter.
Bentsen’s withering slam at Quayle’s inexperience—“Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy”—provided the most memorable moment of the 1988 debates and did irreparable damage to Quayle’s political reputation. But it did little to help the Democratic ticket, which was soundly defeated in November.
Still, other debate moments are credited with making and breaking American presidents. The textbook example taught in American history classes comes from the first televised debate in 1960, when a pale and sweating Richard Nixon looked uneasy standing next to the tanned and handsome John F. Kennedy. But the next presidential debate in 1976 provided another interesting case, one which Berg remembers well because he worked behind the scenes preparing President Carter.
“Obviously, the greatest gaffe in the history of the debates was when Ford freed Poland from communist rule,” Berg said. “It changed the whole tenor of the campaign. And I think it won the campaign for Mr. Carter.”
Incumbent President Gerald Ford was running a close race with Carter in 1976 when he proclaimed during a debate, “There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe and there never will be under a Ford administration.”
At the time, Soviet military forces had occupied most of Eastern Europe since World War II, a point painfully seared into the hearts of Americans descended from eastern European families. The president’s proclamation was so preposterous a reporter on the panel gasped and asked if he’d heard correctly.
That year also brought the first nationally televised political debate to Houston. The Alley Theatre hosted the first debate between candidates for vice-president, Republican Bob Dole and Democrat Walter Mondale.
The next election cycle in 1980 brought the first of a half-dozen national debates involving the Bush family. George H.W. Bush, as Ronald Reagan’s running mate, faced Vice-President Walter Mondale.
But it was during his campaign for re-election to the presidency in 1992 that Bush faltered, checking his watch on stage. The gesture, explained by his aides as a nervous habit, made it appear as though Bush didn’t want to bother talking directly to the American people. Hobbled by the loss of conservative votes sucked away by independent H. Ross Perot, Bush lost the presidency to Bill Clinton.
George W. Bush—the man who later became known as “43”—used the debates to effectively draw a contrast between himself and Vice President Al Gore, especially as Gore theatrically sighed and awkwardly invaded Bush’s personal space on stage. The strange moments helped reinforce the notion that, unlike Gore, Bush was comfortable in his own skin.
But four years later, in what was shaping into a narrow race between him and John Kerry, Bush appeared impatient and annoyed during his first debate. Aides worried that his testy attitude might cost him the presidency, but he bounced back and soundly defeated Kerry.
Now, in the year when Gov. Rick Perry committed the possibly the most embarrassing gaffe in presidential political history—“Oops”—there are no Texans on stage at the bipartisan televised debates. But if history offers any predictor of the future, for better or worse, soon enough the Lone Star State will reappear behind the podium of presidential politics.