In debates, expect the unexpected

The debates are coming - and they could determine the election's outcome.

I sat, with several other reporters, within almost touching distance of the participants in the most famous presidential TV debate in history, when John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon locked horns in Chicago in the fall of 1960. Only a thin glass partition separated us from the contestants and in no way obstructed our view.

How I got such a great front-row seat on history I will never know. As a newsman I had been traveling with both candidates, most recently with Mr. Nixon. In fact, I had walked from a Nixon press bus directly into the television studio, where I was delighted to find I had been given one of the very few seats allotted to the large press contingents traveling with the candidates.

Nixon was supposed to demolish Mr. Kennedy. At least, that was the talk among the press - and hence that was the opinion that the public was reading and hearing. The vice president, it was believed, would be an unbeatable debater with his facility for using logic to present his position or knock down the arguments of opponents. Sure, Nixon would make the kid look bad.

Because I had seen Kennedy in action as a debater in 1952 when he was challenging Henry Cabot Lodge for his Massachusetts Senate seat, I wasn't so sure about Nixon's clear superiority. Mr. Lodge, too, was supposed to have it all over the young Kennedy. But a poised and very personable Kennedy quickly won over the Boston audience and went on from that triumph to beat Lodge in the upcoming election.

It's an old, old story now: How underdog Kennedy outshone the vice president and thereby won a debate that immediately brought him a surge of public approval that turned him into a neck-and-neck contender and eventual winner.

I had appeared on a TV panel following that debate and when asked, "Who won?", I said I wasn't sure. But then I added that I thought that Nixon had looked tired - perhaps as an aftermath of a recent illness.

Well, it turned out that Kennedy "won" that debate because he simply looked better. Nixon aides blamed the makeup man. I received a lot of angry phone calls for even saying that Nixon looked tired - even if it was true.

Some experts who listened to the debate on the radio determined that Nixon won on points. But by making a better appearance on TV, Kennedy started to shoot up in the polls. The public liked what it saw: an attractive, confident, persuasive fellow. And from there he went on to win the election - barely.

I don't know if George W. Bush actually "beat" Al Gore in the debates four years ago. My view was that the debating points were about even. But it was Vice President Gore's overaggressive, know-it-all attitude (particularly that sighing when then-Governor Bush said something Gore thought to be outrageous) that turned him into a "loser" in those debates. A bad appearance cost Gore the debates and, arguably, the election.

I think that most of us remember the Reagan-Mondale debates for the good humor and quips coming from Mr. Reagan. As I saw it, Reagan beat former Vice President Walter Mondale because of his attractive appearance - although Mr. Mondale's tax-increasing position didn't help the Minnesotan.

And now comes Bush vs. Kerry. One could argue that John Kerry, known to be an outstanding debater, will make Bush look bad. Indeed, Senator Kerry's supporters are convinced that their man possesses the better intellect and the better command of logic, and they are demanding as many debates as they can get.

But lest we forget: While Gore was making a less-than-good appearance in those debates, Bush, the underdog, remained cool as he defended himself or presented his case. He may not understand or deal with nuance the way Kerry does; but he has a knack for getting to the heart of an issue.

Bush also has a good sense of humor - which, when used right, can be a tremendous asset in these debates. Kerry hasn't struck me yet as being much on humor, although he just might fool us all by being the funnyman in these debates.

Expect the unexpected.

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