Some people — regardless of whatever else they may have done or failed to do — latch on to a piece of your heart with the act of a single moment.
That’s the way I feel about Lloyd Bentsen, running mate of the ill-fated Michael Dukakis in 1988.
Bentsen produced the only Vice Presidential debate knock-out I’ve ever seen live (although Dick Cheney beat up pretty heavily on Joe Lieberman in 2000). If you missed it, or if you somehow managed never to hear tell of it, the moment went like this:
Dan Quayle had been asked several times about his qualifications not simply to be Vice President, but to be President in the event of a catastrophic emergency. Quayle’s answer is a model of puffery, and couldn’t demonstrate any more clearly his basic ineptitude — throughout the debate he asserted that he would be “on a first-name basis” with world leaders and functionaries in the White House, and this would make all the difference.
And Bentsen’s answer is so devastating that it went on to become a political byword, a generic put-down for any political poser.
Here’s the audio — not quite the same without seeing the spooked look on Quayle’s face after he gets tagged, but still very, very satisfying.
And here’s the relevant part of the transcript:
Quayle: Three times that I’ve had this question — and I will try to answer it again for you, as clearly as I can, because the question you are asking is what kind of qualifications does Dan Quayle have to be president, what kind of qualifications do I have and what would I do in this kind of a situation. And what would I do in this situation?
I would make sure that the people in the cabinet and the people that are advisors to the president are called in, and I would talk to them, and I will work with them.
And I will know them on a firsthand basis, because as vice president I will sit on the National Security Council. And I will know them on a firsthand basis, because I’m going to be coordinating the drug effort. I will know them on a firsthand basis because Vice President George Bush is going to recreate the Space Council, and I will be in charge of that. I will have day-to-day activities with all the people in government. And then, if that unfortunate situation happens - if that situation, which would be very tragic, happens, I will be prepared to carry out the responsibilities of the presidency of the United States of America. And I will be prepared to do that.
I will be prepared not only because of my service in the Congress, but because of my ability to communicate and to lead. It is not just age; it’s accomplishments, it’s experience. I have far more experience than many others that sought the office of vice president of this country. I have as much experience in the Congress as Jack Kennedy did when he sought the presidency. I will be prepared to deal with the people in the Bush administration, if that unfortunate event would ever occur.
Judy Woodruff: Senator Bentsen.
Bentsen: Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy, I knew Jack Kennedy, Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you are no Jack Kennedy. [Prolonged boos and applause]
Of course, it was Quayle who went on to the Vice Presidency, but from there he became a global synonym for stupidity; Bentsen, for his part, went on to be remembered as the man who delivered the most withering political put-down in history.
Not a bad outcome, given the options. Rest in peace, Lloyd. That was a big pitch you hit.