Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton debating with President George H.W. Bush in 1992.
Mitt Romney's debate team reportedly has armed the Republican presidential nominee with a list of "zingers" designed to deflate President Barack Obama in Wednesday's first presidential debate, a tactic employed by other presidential candidates but one that hasn't always worked.
For instance, while researching in the National Archives how President George H.W. Bush tried to exploit doubts about the patriotism of his 1992 opponent Bill Clinton, I found a list of "zingers" that had been prepared for Bush to use in their Oct. 11, 1992, debate.
"It's hard to visit foreign countries with a torn-up passport," read one of the scripted lines. Another zinger read: "Contrary to what the Governor's been saying, most young men his age did not try to duck the draft. ... A few did go to Canada. A couple went to England. Only one I know went to Russia." The senior George Bush hoped to raise questions about Clinton's youthful opposition to the Vietnam War, a student trip he took to Moscow while a Rhodes scholar at Oxford, and rumors that he had tried to renounce his U.S. citizenship. So, the day before the debate, Bush's staff handed the President what he called "zingy" comments.
Bush also hoped to use the trip to Moscow as a double whammy, highlighting both Clinton's supposed lack of patriotism and his shortage of foreign policy experience. "The Governor does have some foreign experience," read one zinger. "We know he's been to Moscow."
Some of the "zingers" were both defensive and offensive. One was designed to counter a possible Clinton criticism about Bush's official Texas residence at a Houston hotel. If Clinton raised that point, Bush was primed to hit back with another Russian reference: "Where is your legal residence, Little Rock or Leningrad."
Another "zinger" highlighted a rumor that Clinton had considered seeking Swedish citizenship. The one-liner read: "That was the year he switched from waffles to meatballs," apparently a reference to Swedish meatballs.
Other "zingers" zapped Clinton about his time in Great Britain on a Rhodes scholarship and his efforts to avoid the military draft. "During the war, Waldo played, 'Where's Bill?'," President Bush was supposed to say.
However, the "zinger" ambush was spoiled when Bush clumsily tried to impugn Clinton's patriotism and encountered a strong counterattack. Early in the debate, Bush raised the loyalty issue in response to a question about character, but the incumbent's message was lost in a cascade of inarticulate sentence fragments...
"I said something the other day where I was accused of being like Joe McCarthy because I question -- I'll put it this way, I think it's wrong to demonstrate against your own country or organize demonstrations against your own country in foreign soil.
"I just think it's wrong. I -- that -- maybe -- they say, 'well, it was a youthful indiscretion.' I was 19 or 20 flying off an aircraft carrier and that shaped me to be commander in chief of the armed forces, and -- I'm sorry but demonstrating -- it's not a question of patriotism, it's a question of character and judgment."
Clinton responded by confronting Bush directly. "You have questioned my patriotism," the Democrat shot back. Clinton then unloaded his own zinger:
"When Joe McCarthy went around this country attacking people's patriotism, he was wrong. He was wrong, and a senator from Connecticut stood up to him, named Prescott Bush. Your father was right to stand up to Joe McCarthy. You were wrong to attack my patriotism."
Many observers rated Clinton's negative comparison of Bush to his father as Bush's worst moment in the debate. An unsettled Bush never regained the initiative. Thus, Bush's "zingers" -- at least the four pages that I obtained from the National Archives -- went unused. So, the public never got to hear such clever comments as:
Bush in a direct question to Clinton: "Ever wake up in the middle of the night with Oxford flashbacks?"
Another: "At Oxford, the governor experienced pre-traumatic stress syndrome."
Or: "Put it this way -- Vietnam Vets don't collect Bill Clinton trading cards."
Read another: "I don't know what you need more -- a compass or a conscience."