THE CRITICAL DEBATES
IN PRESIDENTIAL ELECTIONS
From talk radio, to television, to podcasts and to Twitter, we want students to understand not just the debates but the critiques, the spins and the patterns. We want to support teachers in developing critical thinking and news literacy in students — two things that will serve them throughout their lives and help them to be part of our democracy. This curriculum is designed to foster media literacy, by highlighting the most significant moments in televised presidential debates.
2000: BUSH VS. GORE
By Andrea Stone
The three presidential debates between Vice President Al Gore and Texas Gov. George W. Bush in 2000 are best remembered more for what wasn’t said than for what was.
Gore was slightly ahead in the polls going into the first debate on October 3 in Boston. The Democrat, who had served on Capitol Hill and in President Bill Clinton’s White House, was widely seen as more experienced on domestic and foreign affairs issues than his Republican opponent. Expectations for Bush, whose political resume was short, were low. But body language, not policy expertise, would carry the day.
In the first debate, Bush delivered one of his best zingers about his rival: “I’m beginning to think not only did he invent the internet, but he invented the calculator. It’s fuzzy math.”
As he spoke, though, the TV split screen caught an apparently bored Gore sighing, rolling his eyes and shaking his head. Viewers at home interpreted his reaction as smug and disrespectful. His verbal performance was hardly better as the vice president came off as too wonky, saying seven times that he would put Social Security and Medicare in a “lockbox.” Gore’s campaign staff members were so concerned about the impression he left that they “made him watch a tape to see how he was coming off.”
"Saturday Night Live" certainly noticed, parodying the debates on three consecutive weekends. Will Ferrell depicted Bush as simple-minded and confused, with a tendency toward malapropisms such as the comedian's famously coined “strategery.” Darrell Hammond’s Gore was nerdy, stiff and prone to repeating what soon became a punchline, “lockbox.”
On the day of the third debate, October 17, a brewing company released a lighthearted poll that found voters would rather have a beer with Bush than Gore, a measure of likability reflected in more serious gauges of public opinion.
Gore did little to reverse that sentiment in the town-hall style debate in St. Louis when he walked up to Bush and lurked uncomfortably close as he spoke. Bush smirked and gave him a quick nod, sparking audience laughter.
Gore’s non-verbal behavior was “devastating,” to the Democrat, said Princeton political historian Julian Zelizer. Such crystallizing moments “create and cement certain images that voters have.”
Although Gore would wind up winning more popular votes, it was the Supreme Court’s historic decision and the Electoral College that ultimately decided the outcome in Bush’s favor.
Full first Debate October 3 in Boston: https://www.c-span.org/video/?159295-1/2000-presidential-candidates-debate
Bush “fuzzy math” line happens at 17:23
Gore talks about a “lockbox” at 2:49, 15:14, 48:08, 1:16:19
"Saturday Night Live and the 1976 Presidential Election: A New Voice Enters Campaign Politics” - William Horner and M. Heather Carver. McFarland & Company Inc. 2018; p. 17
 “The Politics of Authenticity in Presidential Campaigns, 1976-2008,” McFarland & Company Inc.; Erica J. Seifert, 2012. p. 172
 Original interview with Princeton political historian Julian Zelizer