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Runyon: What The Gubernatorial Debate Didn't Tell Us

J. Tyler Franklin

September 26, 1960, was a pivotal day in our nation’s political history. That was the Friday when Vice President Richard M. Nixon participated in the first-ever televised debate against Sen. John F. Kennedy. It was broadcast on a Friday night, and our family was going to my grandparents’. We listened to the debate on the car radio.

Most of the nation watched the exchange on television, and the overwhelming choice as victor was Sen. Kennedy. We who listened on the radio thought Mr. Nixon had done the better job. Later surveys would reflect that discrepancy.

The impact of the debate, and the three that followed in the fall of 1960, have long intrigued me.

What happened in that debate was that Nixon, who had been a heartbeat away from the Oval Office for eight years, seemed lackluster, even nervous compared to his opponent, the junior senator from Massachusetts. Both men were young -- Nixon was 47 and Kennedy was 42 -- but most had expected the vice president to tower over the younger senator.

How wrong they were.

Nixon was ill, his collar was too loose, he looked edgy, and he had what appeared to be a five-o’clock shadow. In contrast, Kennedy was fit, tanned and elegant. And most of all, he was serious. His love of history shone through in references to the 1860 elections, when Abraham Lincoln faced Stephen Douglas.

Debating has long been a form of intellectual engagement -- less perspiration than wrestling, less dangerous than duels.

Let’s move forward a half century to the spectacle we witnessed on Tuesday evening from a stage at Bellarmine University. What did the matchup between Attorney General Jack Conway, the Democrat; Matt Bevin, the Republican; and Drew Curtis, a computer entrepreneur and independent, demonstrate?

My expectations for the evening weren’t high. Kentucky politics have always produced some pretty strange gubernatorial debates.

Back in 1974, when Julian Carroll was running against Republican Bob Gable, the chief prop was a teacher’s desk bell. Every time Carroll was thought to tell a lie, Gable smacked the “truth bell.”

Four years later, former Gov. Louie Nunn, the Republican, was running against fried-chicken magnate John Y. Brown Jr. Nunn, who was trying to make an issue of Brown’s attraction to Las Vegas gaming houses, delighted in describing a particular hotel’s jelly beds.

Then there was perhaps the most amazing contest of all, between Democrat Paul Patton and Republican Peppy Martin. Martin, a Louisville advertising executive, declared that Patton, the incumbent seeking re-election, had once killed a man by running over him in his truck, then backing up and running over him a second time for good measure.

Mr. Bevin, who challenged Mitch McConnell in 2014, has a very effective appearance. He’s feisty, he’s crisp. And he’s a pleasant speaker. But if you listen carefully to his comments -- especially on subjects like global warming and guns -- he’s far out of step with established science and mainstream sensibility.

Mr. Curtis was amiable. Surprisingly so. And much of of what he said was plausible. He did not come across as heartless, ignorant or angry. He might not be ready to be governor, but I’d be happy to have him for a neighbor.

Now  we come to Jack Conway. Ever since he arrived in Frankfort in the late 1990s, he has been a young man to watch. He is a protégé of Crit Luallen, perhaps the best public servant in modern Kentucky history.

I don’t think he was particularly effective in the debate. He seemed tentative at times, and he felt compelled to defend his credentials with the coal industry and gun lobby. Jack Conway comes from a tradition that respects individual rights, affirms the dignity of women and their rights, and stands for freedom of speech and the press. But you wouldn’t know it from his debate performance.

So we must wonder: Do debates reflect a candidate’s strengths? Generally, I don’t think they do. Issues take a back seat to impressions.

Remember Richard Nixon?

Keith Runyon is a longtime Louisville journalist and former editorial page editor for The Courier-Journal. His commentaries run every Friday on 89.3-WFPL and wfpl.org.

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