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Opinion

September 29, 2012

Shribman: Debating the debates

(Continued)

And, of course, the devastating glimpse of President George H.W. Bush looking at his wristwatch in Richmond, Va., in 1992, as if to suggest that he couldn’t wait to get off the stage.

“I saw him look at his watch,” Clinton told Jim Lehrer in an interview in 2000. “And I — I thought, I felt, when I saw it, that he was, you know, uncomfortable in that setting and wanted it to be over with.”

No one knows for sure whether debates change history. An enduring piece of conventional wisdom is that Sen. John F. Kennedy won the 1960 election because he looked robust and appealing in his crisp blue suit in his first debate, while his opponent, Vice President Richard M. Nixon, looked fatigued and wan, especially because he was wearing a gray suit.

“We saw them with our naked eyes,” recalls Sander Vanocur, the veteran NBC newsman who is the only person still alive who took part in the 1960 debate. “Kennedy did not sweat. Nixon did a little sweating. It seemed as though Nixon — not too often but once in a while — looked to Kennedy for approval. But not everybody saw it that way.”

The impact of this debate — and whether in fact the people who saw it on television thought Kennedy had won while those who heard it on the radio thought that Nixon had won — has itself been a subject of debate for a half-century. But there is no debate on this: It’s not optimal to appear to perspire or to fade into the background in a gray suit.

A separate debate has sprouted in recent years, questioning whether these events matter at all. “What history can tell us is that presidential debates, while part of how the game is played, are rarely what decide the game itself,” John Sides, a George Washington University political scientist, wrote in the current Washington Monthly.

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