If we're lucky, tonight's debate between President Barack Obama (a Harvard Law School grad) and Republican nominee Mitt Romney (who holds a joint J.D. and M.B.A. from Harvard Law School and Harvard Business School) will serve up some memorable one-liners, a couple of zingers, and maybe even a few cringe-worthy faux pas. But before the candidates give their opening arguments, here are five things we wouldn't mind seeing tonight, based on some of the most notable debate moments of years past.
A One-Sided Train Wreck
During the very first televised debate in 1960, Richard Nixon set the standard for how to look like a hot mess. In reality, he was more of a cold, clammy, perspiring mess, and it didn't help that his opponent, John F. Kennedy '40, looked like cool combination of Cary Grant and a Ken doll.
Nothing is more fascinating or troubling than watching a candidate try to fudge the facts, and nothing quite compares to Gerald Ford's declaration during a 1976 debate that, "There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe." Moderator Max Frankel's befuddled response ("I'm sorry, what?...") says it all.
Digging up the past always spices up a debate, especially when the past comes back and bites you in the butt. A certain Senator Dan "Potatoe" Quayle learned this lesson all too well during the 1988 Vice Presidential debate. When Quayle, comparing his youthful self to John F. Kennedy, tried to school opponent Lloyd Bentsen on the older senator's own period of history, Bentsen had a few words for the young grasshopper: "Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy."
The Harvard hug that never was? We're not quite sure what exactly Al Gore '69 was going for when he abruptly stood up and approached George W. Bush (HBS '75) during a 2000 presidential debate—maybe he was looking to share some Crimson loving with his opponent? We hope tonight's debaters will have better luck. The president's track record with middle aged white guys seems to be in Mr. Romney's favor.
A Little Bit of Sass
You could say that then-Senator Barack Obama started it when he told Hillary Clinton that she was "likable enough" during a January 2008 primary debate. But when Obama was called to defend himself against accusations that he had plagiarized parts of his speeches, Clinton wasted no time in dishing out a memorable, "That's not change you can believe in, that's change you can Xerox." Obama didn't appreciate the swipe, but we hear he's doing all right these days. Clinton, for her part, may not have won the election, but four years later, she's Secretary of State and arguably a lot more likable.
Regardless of what happens tonight, things are bound to go better than they did in 1940, when Republican candidate Wendell Willkie challenged Franklin D. Roosevelt '04 to a debate and was promptly rejected by the President. Some things (like a President Wendell Willkie) just aren't meant to be.