The Story Behind the Best Debate Zinger Ever

Vice-Presidential candidates Sen. Lloyd Bentsen (left) and Sen. Dan Quayle facing off in their 1988 debate Photograph by Steve Liss/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images

For all that they’re hyped, presidential and vice presidential debates are usually quickly forgotten. But every once in a while, a candidate gets off a line so devastating, funny, or embarrassing that it lives on through the ages. Mitt Romney’s camp has insinuated that their candidate is arming himself with lines in hopes of deploying just such a “zinger”—the term of art this campaign cycle. Coincidentally, Ron Klain, a Democratic campaign operative who was involved in the deadliest zinger ever deployed, has just explained how it came to be. The line in question was Lloyd Bentsen’s devastating put-down of Dan Quayle during the 1988 vice presidential debate after Quayle compared himself to John F. Kennedy: “Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.”

In a memo for Third Way on how candidates should prepare for a debate, Klain recommends studying what one’s opponent has been saying, especially in the days just before the debate:

All candidates are creatures of habit. You can use that to your advantage: 90% of what your opponent will say in the debate will have come out of his mouth in the week before the debate. Make sure you have transcripts of everything he has been saying, and study them for counter-punching opportunities. The most famous take down line in political debating—Bentsen v. Quayle—came from such an exercise: in debate prep, a briefer showed Bentsen a recent transcript of Quayle comparing his credentials to JFK’s, and Bentsen exclaimed, “You mean he’s comparing himself to Jack Kennedy? I knew Jack Kennedy …” The rest is history.

To appreciate the full force of Bentsen’s zinger, you really have to see it for yourself. Note the gleam in the Democrat’s eye as Quayle makes the comparison that Bentsen knew was coming—and had prepared for.

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