Peter Spiegel, US Managing Editor
Vice-presidential debates have been far less memorable than presidential duels since the first one was held in 1976 between Jimmy Carter’s running-mate, Minnesota Senator Walter Mondale, and incumbent Gerald Ford’s, Kansas Senator Robert Dole. Still, some had their moments, and the following are my top five. To be honest, it’s hard to really find five (it’s more like two with a few middling incidents) but all lists have to be in fives, so I’ll have a go:
1 — “Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy,” 1988
It remains the most memorable line ever uttered in a vice-presidential debate — and there’s a case to be made it’s the biggest zinger ever delivered in any modern US political debate. After Republican Dan Quayle suggested he had the same amount of congressional experience as John Kennedy did when the martyred president ran in 1960, Democrat Lloyd Bentsen unloaded a line for the ages: “Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.” There was some question post-mortem whether Bentsen really was a friend of Kennedy’s or more of a passing acquaintance. Still, the line haunted Quayle for the rest of his political career — even if his ticket did win the White House.
2 — “Who am I? Why am I here?”, 1992
I remember watching this one live and laughing out loud. But in retrospect, it’s a great shame Vice-Admiral James Stockdale, a decorated Vietnam war hero who received the Medal of Honour after spending seven years as a prisoner in the notorious Hanoi Hilton, will be remembered for his bumbling debate performance in 1992. He was Ross Perot’s provisional pick for VP on the businessman’s independent ticket, but was never replaced with a more seasoned political operator — so found himself in over his head in a three-way debate with incumbent Quayle and Democrat Al Gore. He introduced himself with the now-famous questions and it was downhill from there.
3 — Joe Biden vs Sarah Palin, 2008
The remaining three top-five moments involve a bit of cheating. The 2008 VP debate itself wasn’t particularly memorable in and of itself. But it served as the jumping-off point for comedian Tina Fey’s legendary impression of Alaska governor Sarah Palin. Palin’s personality became so intertwined with Fey in the public consciousness that she is sometimes accused of uttering a phrase that was actually coined by Fey: “I can see Russia from my house!” Fey portrayed Palin in an earlier episode of Saturday Night Live, but this debate parody cemented the image.
4 — “Democrat wars”, 1976
Dole was one of the few VP candidates to run on a ticket with a sitting president while not being the incumbent (the liberal Nelson Rockefeller was dropped by Ford so he could shore up his right flank against a challenge by a consevative California governor named Ronald Reagan). Although Dole’s 1976 debate performance was just a footnote in Ford’s unsuccessful re-election campaign, it would haunt the Kansan for years, reinforcing his image as a hatchet man. When asked about Ford’s pardon of Richard Nixon, Dole turned it into a criticism of “Democrat wars” — including the second world war — accusing the party of being responsible for all 20th century American casualties.
5 — “Kick a little ass,” 1984
Before the debate, there was much discussion about how tough incumbent George HW Bush could be facing the first woman to be nominated vice-president by a major US political party, New York congresswoman Geraldine Ferraro. The debate itself was largely uneventful, but it was Bush’s comments the day after that would earn a historical note: he was caught on a live microphone telling supporters he had “tried to kick a little ass last night”. Very un-Bushian.