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A Dip Into The Annals Of Presidential Debates


With the presidential debates coming up next week, we thought we'd turn once more to a man who tries to know everything, A.J. Jacobs, contributing editor at Esquire magazine and author of a number of books too numerous to mention for him to benefit from any bounce in his Amazon rankings. A.J. joins us from New York. A.J., thanks for being with us.

A.J. JACOBS: Thank you for having me.

SIMON: Let's go back a few elections. I gather you've discovered that Wendell Willkie challenged President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to debates in 1940.

JACOBS: Right. For a long time, presidents didn't debate because they thought it was beneath their dignity. So yeah, Wendell Willkie challenged FDR to a debate. FDR said, no, it's just a publicity stunt. I'm not going to do it. Then, Willkie turned around and pulled an FDR. The socialist candidate, Norman Thomas, challenged Willkie to a debate and Willkie said, that's not going to happen. And ironically, Eleanor Roosevelt became a big advocate of presidential debates. And she pushed for them and partly helped get the Nixon/Kennedy debates going.

SIMON: Of course, this was 1960, beginning the modern era of debates and there was so much excitement. The nation tuned in for that first debate where Senator Kennedy famously looked better on black and white television than Richard Nixon. You say this had to do with dueling maladies.

JACOBS: This, you can look at it as the battle of diseases, staph infection versus Addison's disease. Nixon, about a month before the debate, slammed his knee in a car door and got a staph infection and was hospitalized for two weeks. He lost a tremendous amount of weight. He looked terrible. He felt terrible. Kennedy, on the other hand, was relaxed. He looked great and he had that famous permanent tan.

And many historians believe that that tan is actually a symptom of his Addison's disease, the endocrine disorder that sometimes turns people's skin orange. So if you are going to have a disease before the debate, definitely Addison's over staph infection.

SIMON: Let's move to the 1980s. Now, in the annals of debates, there is never considered to be a better one-upper, a better zinger than this one. Let me set it up a bit. Senator Dan Quayle said, I'm young, yes, but I actually have more experience in Congress than Senator John F. Kennedy when he ran for president. Lloyd Bentsen, the Democratic candidate says...


SIMON: Pow, pow, slam dunk. I gather you have a zinger from Abraham Lincoln.

JACOBS: Yes. This is my favorite zinger in debate history. And it was during the Lincoln/Douglas debates and Lincoln said Douglas' policy was, quote, "as thin as the homeopathic soup that was made by boiling the shadow of a pigeon that had starved to death." Nailed it.

SIMON: A.J., thanks, as usual, and we'll contact you for an on-air apology when our listeners write in to correct more or less everything you've said.


JACOBS: Thank you. I look forward to that.

SIMON: Esquire editor at large and author most recently of "Drop Dead Healthy" A.J. Jacobs. Thanks, A.J.

JACOBS: Thank you, Scott.


SIMON: You're listening to NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.