In 1960, when I was just eight years old, I watched the first televised presidential debate. It was Kennedy v. Nixon, and I watched the debate on a Philco black and white TV in our family living room, as I sat between a Democrat and a Republican.
The Democrat was my father. The Republican was my mother. My father never voted for a Republican in his entire life. My mother never voted for a Democrat. Every election day, they would cancel out each other’s vote.
My dad was for JFK, not only because Kennedy was a Democrat, but also because Kennedy had been a Naval Officer during World War II. My father had also been a young Navy Officer during the War, and therefore Jack Kennedy was his man.
My mother was for Nixon and against Kennedy for a religious reason. Kennedy was a Catholic, and my Pentacostal mother believed that if a Catholic were elected President, the Pope would be running America. She was convinced that if Kennedy won, there would be a red phone in the Oval Office that would have a direct line to Rome, and that every morning Kennedy would call the Pope to get his marching orders for the day.
I remember that Kennedy and the Pope won that presidential debate by a whisker, specifically Nixon’s whiskers. Believe it or not, Nixon failed to shave before the debate and appeared on the television screen with a heavy five o’clock shadow. This would have looked bad enough on color TV, but on a black and white TV, it made Nixon look dark and evil, which as it turned out, was a pretty accurate portrayal.
Kennedy on the other hand, not only shaved but looked tan and fit probably because the Pope had told him to go to Palm Beach and sit by the pool to prepare for the debate.
I saw my next presidential debate some 16 years later when President Gerald Ford debated a peanut farmer from Georgia named Jimmy Carter. I did not watch this debate with my parents. I was in law school and watched it all by myself in my apartment.
It was a close debate until President Ford made a gaffe by liberating Poland.
Four years later, after I had become a young lawyer, I watched President Peanut Farmer debate Ronald Reagan a few days before the 1980 presidential election. It was not a close contest, as The Gipper charmingly smiled at President Peanut Farmer and condescendingly said, “There you go again.”
The next presidential debate I vividly recall occurred some 12 years later in 1992 when President George Herbert Walker Bush squared off against a young whippersnapper from Arkansas named Bill Clinton. The whippersnapper won when an impatient President Bush kept glancing at his wrist watch while Clinton told a young member of the audience, “I feel your pain!”
As it turned out over the next eight years, pain wasn’t the only part of us that Bill Clinton felt.
In 2000, I watched a truly bizarre presidential debate as my fellow Tennessean Al Gore left his podium on the presidential debate set and appeared to stalk President George Dubya Bush across the stage. He did this after muttering something about a “lock box.” It was a bizarre scene, and Gore went on to lose the election to Dubya by one vote, specifically Justice Scalia’s.
I have no recollection of any other presidential debate, even though I’m sure I watched forgettable battles such as Dukakis v. George Herbert Walker Bush, Kerry v. W. Bush, and McCain v. Obama and Romney v. Obama.
On Monday night, some 56 years after I sat between my mom and my dad and watched the Kennedy/Nixon debate, I’ll be sitting in my lounge chair, all by myself, watching Hillary Rodham Clinton debate The Donald.
I have lowered my expectations for this event, as I truly believe it will be a not-so-great debate. In fact, I believe it will be a series of insults, as if Don Rickles will be debating Lisa Lampanelli.
I do not anticipate any substantive discussion on how to win the war on terrorism or balance the federal budget or deal with any other substantive issue our nation faces. Instead, based on what I’ve seen in the 2016 presidential election campaign so far, and what I’ve seen in the 400 previous debates involving the Democratic and Republican presidential candidates, I expect something like the debates I used to be involved in on the playground at Frayser Elementary School in the early 1960s. These debates featured snappy repartee, including such memorable lines as, “Twinkle, twinkle little star, what you say is what you are!” Or “I’m rubber and you’re glue, and what you say bounces off me and sticks on you!”
I hope I’m wrong, but I predict that by the end of the debate on Monday night, all of us will either be glancing at our watches like President George Herbert Walker Bush, or hoping that both Secretary Clinton and The Donald will impersonate Al Gore by leaving their podiums, and stalking across the debate stage, and heading for the exits.