U.S. politics: How low can it go? Past vs. October 2016

How vicious was the Trump Clinton town-hall debate? Comparisons with past ones

President Jimmy Carter and his Republican challenger, Ronald Reagan, shake hands as they greet one another before their debate on the stage of the Music Hall in Cleveland, Ohio, 1980. (Bettmann/Getty Images)

President Jimmy Carter and his Republican challenger, Ronald Reagan, shake hands as they greet one another before their debate on the stage of the Music Hall in Cleveland, Ohio, 1980. (Bettmann/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON — The latest debate between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton was vicious by historical standards.

Here’s a comparison.

Moments deemed awkward in previous presidential debates, and this one:


1960: Richard Nixon is judged to have lost because of traces of sweat, some five-o’clock shadow, and a pallid complexion. Future Republican nominee Bob Dole recalls hearing the debate on radio and thinking Nixon won, then seeing clips on TV and deciding he’d been wiped out by John F. Kennedy.

1976: Gerald Ford bizarrely denies that Soviets control Eastern Europe. He gets grilled for denying a basic fact. An even more awkward moment from that year involved the audio: the sound system failed for 27 minutes, as the candidates waited on stage.

1980: Ronald Reagan is deemed to have laid out Jimmy Carter with a powerful zinger. Carter mentions his opponent’s historic opposition to public health care for seniors. The response that passed for a knockout punch at the time: Reagan replied, “There you go again.”

1984: Reagan turns a question about his age on its head. When the issue comes up, he makes reference to his younger opponent Walter Mondale: “I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.”

1988: In one of the memorable all-time burns, vice-presidential candidate Lloyd Bentsen shut down his opponent Dan Quayle. When Quayle compares his resume to John F. Kennedy’s. Bentsen fires back: “I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.” Visibly flummoxed, the Republican replied: “That was really uncalled for, senator.”

1988: A debate moderator asks anti-death penalty proponent Michael Dukakis whether he’d feel differently about capital punishment if his wife were murdered. Dukakis replied that his opposition is absolute — his standard response to the issue. Years later, Dukakis tells PBS: “I didn’t think (my answer) was that bad.” But he adds that he might have done a better job introducing his position to people listening to him for the first time.

1992: Bill Clinton fumes about his rival bringing up his opposition to the Vietnam War, and his youthful trip to Russia. He reminds George H.W. Bush that his own father, Prescott, fought against anti-communist demagoguery: “Your father was right to stand up to Joe McCarthy. You were wrong to attack my patriotism.” In another debate, Bush looks at his watch twice. Years later, he expresses bewilderment that became a story.

2000: Al Gore walks strangely close to George W. Bush. Bush notices and offers a cool nod. “I couldn’t tell if he was trying to threaten me — in which case it amused me even more,” Bush later told PBS.


Oct. 9, 2016

— The candidates don’t shake hands as they enter. In the crowd, Donald Trump has invited three women who decades ago accused his opponent’s spouse of sexual misconduct or rape, and a fourth who was alleged to have been raped by a suspect Hillary Clinton successfully defended as a lawyer. Trump brings it up again in the debate: “Bill Clinton was abusive to women. Hillary Clinton attacked those same women and attacked them viciously.”

— Trump threatens to have opponent arrested. He says he’ll appoint a special prosecutor to examine whether Hillary Clinton should be charged for destroying potential evidence in her emails. She expresses relief someone with Trump’s impulses doesn’t control law-enforcement. Trump replies: “Because you’d be in jail.”

— Trump apologizes for a video where he talks about grabbing women’s genitals without their permission: “This was locker-room talk. I’m not proud of it. I apologized to my family. I apologized to the American people… Yes, I’m very embarrassed by it, I hate it.”

— Trump refers to his opponent as Satan. He says Bernie Sanders made a deal “with the devil” when he agreed to back Clinton. He later says: “She has tremendous hate in her heart.”

— Trump contradicts his running mate on basic policy regarding the Syrian war. He brushes off Mike Pence’s threat to protect civilians by bombing Assad regime targets: “He and I haven’t spoken. And I disagree,” Trump says.

— Trump accuses opponent of attacking Michelle Obama in 2008 ads and says it was Clinton _ not him _ who started rumours Barack Obama was born in Africa. There is no evidence to support either claim.

— Clinton describes opponent as the worst nominee in memory: “I never questioned (others’) fitness to serve…. Donald Trump is different. I said starting back in June that he was not fit to be president…. We have seen him insult women. We’ve seen him rate women on their appearance, ranking them from one to 10… It’s not only women… He has also targeted immigrants, African- Americans, Latinos, people with disabilities, POWs, Muslims, and so many others. So this is who Donald Trump is. And the question for us _ the question our country must answer is: This is not who we are.”