The first debate in the 2020 presidential election was chaotic and awkward, to say the least, as President Donald Trump and Vice President Joe Biden sparred in a cacophony of interruption and disorder. It even prompted the Commission on Presidential Debates to release a statement Wednesday explaining it will add new “tools to maintain order” to the upcoming debates.
The “debate” also reminded us of past presidential shouting matches, tense interactions and generally weird moments between candidates that would decide the fate of the country, for better or worse. Take a look back at some other odd, uneasy and genuinely funny moments from both presidential and vice presidential debates, including primaries.
Nixon sweats the debate (1960)
The first debate in the 1960 election was historic for a few reasons, chiefly because it was the first ever held on television, indicating voters’ perception of the candidates might go beyond the substance of their campaigns (depending on your perspective, obviously). Nixon famously appeared sweaty and unshaven opposite clean-cut and relaxed John F. Kennedy in front of an estimated 70 million viewers. History suggests TV viewers claimed Kennedy won, while those listening on the radio thought Nixon did.
‘I will not make age an issue of this campaign’ (1984)
At the time, 73-year-old incumbent President Ronald Reagan became the oldest person to ever be nominated by a major party for president. When his age became an issue during the second 1984 presidential debate against a younger Walter Mondale, Reagan delivered an amazing line: “I am not going to exploit for political purposes my opponent’s youth and inexperience.” He won 49 states in a total landslide.
‘You’re no Jack Kennedy’ (1988)
When vice presidential candidate Sen. Dan Quayle, 41 at the time, insisted he was plenty qualified to take over as president in the event he had to, pointing out he had as much experience in Congress as John F. Kennedy did when he ran for president. Walter Mondale’s 1988 running mate Sen. Lloyd Bentsen famously told Quayle that he was “no Jack Kennedy” in this 1988 debate. Quayle replied, “That was really uncalled for, Senator.”
‘You ought to be ashamed of yourself’ (1992)
“You’re not worth being on the same platform as my wife,” Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton told California Gov. Jerry Brown during a 1992 Democratic primary debate in Chicago after Brown accused Clinton of funneling Arkansas state money to Hillary Clinton’s law firm. Clinton would win the nomination, and the presidency.
Bush checks his watch (1992)
Media and voters took issue when incumbent President George H.W. Bush checked his watch as a young woman asked a question about the national debt. Where exactly did the president have to be? For all we know, there was a national security crisis to which he was privy and he needed to jet. Or he just wanted to be aware of his time limit with the question. Or it was a completely harmless moment of habit that Twitter would no doubt mercilessly analyze and criticize had it existed in 1992.
Bush and McCain ad jabs (2000)
Before George W. Bush easily won the Republican nomination, he and primary opponent Sen. John McCain traded jabs after trading negative campaign ads during this sit-down debate moderated by CNN’s Larry King, which also featured third candidate Ambassador Alan Keyes calling their spat “pointless squabbling.”
Joe the Plumber (2008)
Ohio plumber Joe Wurzelbacher entered the zeitgeist after he spoke with Obama face-to-face on the campaign trail and claimed the future president’s tax policy would challenge his business plans. At a subsequent debate, Obama and GOP nominee Sen. John McCain would then speak to “Joe the Plumber” directly through the camera to make their policy cases they hoped would connect with him and other regular folks running small businesses.
During a primary debate, then-Texas Gov. Rick Perry emphatically stated he would eliminate three agencies of government when elected president. Only problem was he immediately forgot the third agency he’d nix on the spot. He wouldn’t recover in the debate, nor in the election.
‘10,000 bucks?’ (2012)
Before he won the GOP nomination in the 2012 primary, Gov. Mitt Romney sparred with Gov. Rick Perry over policy Perry insisted he read about in Romney’s book. The wealthy Massachusetts governor denied it and then, in a slightly out-of-touch moment, he made a spontaneous $10,000 bet to find the truth. Perry declined.
‘Get the transcript’ (2012)
Republican candidate Gov. Mitt Romney insisted President Barack Obama took 14 days to call the Benghazi attack an “act of terror,” while the president insisted they “get the transcript.” Moderator and CNN analyst Candy Crowley fact-checked to point out Obama did use that term to describe the event. Also, remember “binders full of women?”
‘A bunch of malarkey’
When Mitt Romney’s GOP running mate Paul Ryan criticized the White House’s foreign policy during a 2012 campaign, Vice President Joe Biden called his claims “a bunch of malarkey,” encapsulating the Veep’s unique and rather old school way with words. (Oct. 11)
Rubio attacks Trump (2016)
In the final Republican debate before Super Tuesday 2016, as Donald Trump was gaining steam to win the nomination (and ultimately the presidency), Senators Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz unleashed a flurry of attacks on the businessman, attempting to beat him at his own game. “If he hadn’t inherited $200 million, you know where Donald Trump would be right now? Rubio asked, next to a clearly rattled Trump. “Selling watches in Manhattan.” Cruz then pointed out Trump was polling behind presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, to which Trump replied, “If I can’t beat her, you’re really gonna get killed, aren’t you?”
‘Such a nasty woman’ (2016)
While Democratic nominee Sec. Hillary Clinton discussed social security policy, GOP hopeful Donald Trump called interjected to call her a “nasty woman,” which she ignored. Many immediately pointed it out as yet another misogynistic moment for the future president while some of Clinton’s supporters continue to use it as a rallying cry.
Putin’s ‘puppet’ (2016)
Another tense moment from the third debate in 2016: When Trump said Russian President Vladimir Putin had no respect Clinton, she quickly retorted “That’s because he’d rather have a puppet as president of the United States.” Trump’s response: “No puppet. No puppet. You’re the puppet. No, you’re the puppet.”
‘One arrogant billionaire for another’ (2020)
During a Democratic primary debate in Las Vegas, Sen. Elizabeth Warren highlighted Mayor Mike Bloomberg’s past misogynistic comments about women during a tense moment as they stood shoulder to shoulder. “Understand this,” Warren said. “Democrats take a huge risk if we just substitute one arrogant billionaire for another.” While polling decently prior to that debate, Bloomberg’s campaign would not recover.