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October 05, 2013

Dan Quayle is no Jack Kennedy – and Lloyd Bentsen is no Michael Sheehan…


It’s not often that debates between candidates for Vice President of the United States generate a famous quotation – or even much attention.

But there are some notable exceptions.

One is the October 13, 1992 vice-presidential debate, in which Independent Ross Perot’s V.P. pick, James Stockdale, said “Who am I? Why am I here?” (It had the unfortunate effect of making him seem a bit, er, lost.)

A more famous quote from a vice-presidential debate occurred four years earlier on October 5, 1988.

In that one, Republican V.P. candidate Senator Dan Quayle debated Senator Lloyd Bentsen, candidate for the Democratic Party. (The presidential candidates were Republican George Herbert Walker Bush and Democrat Michael Dukakis.)

Tom Brokaw was among the journalists asking the candidates questions that night. At one point, Brokaw raised an issue that had previously been raised by various political pundits (and Democrats) in the weeks leading up to the debate: the question of whether Quayle, who was only 41 years old, had the experience needed to serve as President of the United States in the event it became necessary.

In his reply to Brokaw, Quayle made the mistake of saying: “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.”

Bentsen pounced on this quickly, responding with what is considered to be one of the best zingers ever used in a political debate:

“Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy.”

Democrats and the media loved it. And, ever since then, the linguistic formula “You’re no [fill in the name]” has been part of our cultural lexicon, usually as a line used for humorous effect.

Of course, despite all the attention the line received, Bush and Quayle handily defeated Dukakis and Bentsen in the November 1988 election.

And, although the quip made Bentsen seem like a debating genius, he didn’t exactly come up with it out of the blue.
Before the debate, Bentsen had received extensive training from the legendary professional speakers trainer and debate coach Michael Sheehan.

Sheehan has coached more US Presidents, Vice Presidents, First Ladies, Cabinet Secretaries, Governors, Mayors and Congressmen than anyone in the country. He’s a master at creating quotable quips for them to use.

Sheehan knew that Quayle had often compared himself to President Kennedy when reporters asked him about his youth and qualifications. He was also aware that Bentsen had known Kennedy personally.

During their practice for the vice-presidential debate, Sheehan had Bentsen prepare and hone responses to a number of things Quayle was likely to say during the debate. One was how to respond if Quayle compared himself to Kennedy.

In a story published in Vanity Fair magazine in 2011, Democratic political consultant Mike Curry, who was involved in the 1988 campaign, gave Bentsen all the credit for his famous debate zinger.

But some people who know Michael Sheehan think he may have crafted the final version of the quip Bentsen used in the debate.

I happen know Michael Sheehan myself. I worked with him on some political campaigns I’ve been involved in.

I once asked him whether he created Bentsen’s “You’re no Jack Kennedy” lines. He avoided giving me a direct answer.

Nonetheless, here’s my opinion: Lloyd Bentsen is no Michael Sheehan.

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