The Most Exciting Time in the History of the World to Be Alive

They were living in an era that prized blithe superficiality. For the second straight month, the Billboard Hot 100 was dominated by a song about a woman named Macarena who cheats on her boyfriend after he’s conscripted; delegates at that summer’s DNC had famously danced to it. The reigning box-office champ was The First Wives Club, in which three well-heeled divorcées vie for the fortunes of their adulterous ex-husbands. “It’s the ’90s,” says Goldie Hawn’s character, “plastic surgery is like good grooming!” (Characters in the ’90s loved to talk about how they were living in the ’90s, the ultimate decade.)

If Americans clamor for a return to boring and courteous politics, the 1996 Gore–Kemp debate offers a blueprint

Last October, after the splenetic first presidential debate, a clip from 1996 began to circulate on Twitter. A man with a head of lustrous white hair faced the camera in wire-frame aviator glasses of the sort that would later appear on American Apparel models. “This is the greatest democracy in the world,” he said in a raspy, avuncular voice. “People are watching not only throughout this country, but all over the world as to how this democracy can function with civility and respect, and decency and integrity.”

That was Jack Kemp, then the Republican vice-presidential candidate under Senator Bob Dole. Kemp stood behind a sturdy oak lectern at the Mahaffey Theater in St. Petersburg, Florida, where he was debating Vice President Al Gore, who would soon win a second term with President Bill Clinton. That night, Kemp pointedly declined to attack Clinton or Gore on personal and ethical terms; Dole had done the same at the presidential debate a few nights earlier. “In my opinion, it is beneath Bob Dole to go after anyone personally,” Kemp told the moderator, Jim Lehrer, in his opening remarks. “Clearly, Abraham Lincoln put it best when he said you serve your party best by serving the nation first.”

Gore responded in kind. “I would like to thank Jack Kemp for the answer that he just gave. I think we have an opportunity tonight to have a positive debate about this country’s future.” Then he deadpanned: “I’d like to start by offering you a deal, Jack. If you won’t use any football stories”—Kemp, a former pro quarterback, liked to invoke athletics on the stump—“I won’t tell any of my warm and humorous stories about chlorofluorocarbon abatement.” The audience laughed; Kemp, smiling, agreed to the terms.

In the jaundiced present, one can only marvel at this display of breezy bipartisan camaraderie. What country, friends, is this? The pageantry is familiar, but the proceedings are alien. On Twitter, Kemp’s “decency and integrity” soundbite was held up as evidence of a bygone era when respect triumphed over rancor. As of this writing, the video has earned more than 183,000 views, netting dozens of awed reactions and long rows of wistful ellipses: “Civility…… whew. Can’t wait to have it back.” “Wow. What the hell happened to us?” “I miss these times….”

Civility is boring, and boredom is the mark of a smooth, well-oiled polity: these ideas became commonplace in the lead-up to Joe Biden’s election. The weeks after his inauguration have seen Washington reporters luxuriating in the hush that’s fallen over their embattled city. “Joe Biden has a real shot at being a boring president,” John Dickerson wrote in The Atlantic: “if the country is lucky, entire days will pass without the president’s activities agitating the public mind.” The technocrats will take it from here; the rest of us can safely look away.

If Americans clamor for a return to boring and courteous politics, the Gore–Kemp debate offers a blueprint, if an imperfect one. It’s an example of wholesale politics drained of sensationalism: an odorless, tasteless distillate of boredom. Or it’s a testament to the apathy that collects around politicians who paper over their differences with brittle decorum. Either way, a quarter century later, it remains the consummate nonevent.

In 1996, pundits hoped Kemp and Gore would set the tone for the 2000 election and beyond. Their blandness was, to use a favorite phrase of today’s commentariat, a feature, not a bug. (The day before the debate, perhaps anticipating the tedium to come, a Reuters photographer at the Mahaffey Theater captured a camera technician yawning strenuously behind one of the lecterns.) “Gore and Kemp are the right kinds of candidates for this new era of politics,” a senior White House official told the Los Angeles Times. “They’re both wonky guys willing to sit for hours and talk about global warming or the gold standard. People want that.”

People did not want that. With only 26.6 million viewers, the Gore–Kemp contest garnered the lowest ratings of any presidential or vice-presidential debate in television history, according to Nielsen. (By comparison, the first Biden–Trump debate drew an audience of 73.1 million; Kamala Harris and Mike Pence reached 57.9 million.) Neither candidate went on to hold the highest office in the land, though Gore of course came tantalizingly close. For Kemp, the aftermath of the debate, which most voters agreed he had lost, was disastrous. Though he’d been a potential frontrunner for the next Republican nomination, he never again commanded the spotlight.

Kemp was out of step with his party. Newt Gingrich, who’d become the Speaker of the House the previous year, had been advocating for “aggressive and confrontational tactics” among rank-and-file conservatives. Accordingly, Rush Limbaugh, then at the peak of his powers,1 had harsh words for Kemp’s kid-glove approach, as did The Weekly Standard’s Bill Kristol, who whined, “If you came down from Mars and saw this debate, you might think that Al Gore was a moderate Republican . . . and Jack Kemp was the Democrat.” Sam Donaldson told Kemp to his face, on national TV, that many Republicans saw him as a “garrulous, unprepared wimp.” Even Dole, who’d been assailed for his own politesse on the campaign trail, threw his running mate under the bus, telling Nightline that the debate “looked like a fraternity picnic there for a while.” The Chicago Tribune wondered, “Is the country best served by such an aggressively civil ninety minutes?” Chronicle ’97, a current-events book for children, summarized the ’96 race as follows: “Few are likely to have changed their minds as the candidates worked over familiar themes in a civilized way, avoiding personal attacks.” Earlier in the campaign, Dole tried “going negative” by referring to Clinton as “Bozo.” It didn’t go well. The real Bozo, a professional clown, weighed in from Hollywood: “It irks me when people use the character’s name in a demeaning way.”

Gore and Kemp had been friends since their time together in the House of Representatives; their chumminess was authentic. And yet to a contemporary viewer it feels flimsy, in part because it didn’t stimulate anything close to a deeper conversation. Far from being too wonky, the debate wasn’t wonky enough. Watch it for more than five minutes and it comes to feel like any other: repetitious, slippery, lacking in candor and credibility. It’s galling to see Gore, for instance, present his administration as a boon for Black voters when the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act was just more than two years old at the time, already causing a spike in the incarceration rate. And a voter hoping to learn how, say, supply-side economics might deliver wealth and prosperity to the less affluent would be out of luck; Kemp offers insubstantial details. Putting aside their ’90s hobbyhorses—welfare reform, a balanced budget, “too much litigation”—the pair sparred over the same issues that animated the 2020 election, floating many of the same ideas, like steep tax cuts and inner-city enterprise zones.

But there are moments of striking tonal contrast. Here’s Gore taking Kemp to task on affirmative action:

I want to congratulate Mr. Kemp for being a lonely voice in the Republican party over the years on this question. It is with some sadness that I refer to the fact that the day after he joined Senator Dole’s ticket, he announced that he  . . . was hereto, thereafter going to adopt Senator Dole’s position to end all affirmative action . . . There is a specific measure on the ballot in California. It was embodied in legislation, introduced by Senator Dole, to apply to the whole nation. Mr. Kemp campaigned against it, spoke against it, wrote letters against it, went to California to fight against it, and now has endorsed it.

Phrases like “a lonely voice” and “it is with some sadness” have a rhetorical sheen that was nowhere to be found in the 2020 race, when the candidates preferred to talk about beating each other up.

Kemp, for his part, conceded that racism plagued America. “It is so very important,” he said, “for Americans, white and black, Jew and Christian, immigrant and native-born, to sit down and talk and listen and begin to understand what it’s like to come from that different perspective.” This bit of boilerplate voter outreach should not astonish, but today, coming from a Republican, it does. As Matthew Dallek argued in 2016, Trump’s racism is a repudiation, “in the most forceful terms,” of Kemp’s big-tent vision for Republicanism; the party no longer aspires to speak to many of the voters and demographics whom Kemp believed could be won over. And Kemp was capable of broad-brushstroke optimism in a way that even Biden is not. Ask yourself if you’ve heard this sentiment on the national stage of late: “I think this is the most exciting time in the history of the world to be alive.”

Did Kemp really believe that? Did his audience? Maybe so: the Cold War was receding in the rearview mirror. But they were living in an era that prized blithe superficiality. For the second straight month, the Billboard Hot 100 was dominated by a song about a woman named Macarena who cheats on her boyfriend after he’s conscripted; delegates at that summer’s DNC had famously danced to it. The reigning box-office champ was The First Wives Club, in which three well-heeled divorcées vie for the fortunes of their adulterous ex-husbands. “It’s the ’90s,” says Goldie Hawn’s character, “plastic surgery is like good grooming!” (Characters in the ’90s loved to talk about how they were living in the ’90s, the ultimate decade.)

Far from a matter of life or death, politics had become an extension of a commercial culture that framed civic duty as another commodity. One’s political philosophy amounted to a personality trait. Like Fuddruckers promising unprecedented variety and customizability, twenty-four-hour cable news allowed politics “junkies” to gorge themselves at a buffet where any choice was the right one, as long as it was yours. The bellicose Gingrich would later characterize himself as the “first leader of the C-SPAN generation.” For such a generation, an election was an elevated form of shopping. Making the connection explicit, one DC mall had commemorated Clinton’s 1993 inauguration with an ad featuring the President-elect in his jogging apparel, with the message, “While you’re jogging, drop into one of our thirty restaurants.” PepsiCo launched its ill-fated Crystal Pepsi to coincide with the inauguration, too: a full-page ad in The New York Times proclaimed that a nation “Thirsty for Change” should also crave a new soft drink.

Against this backdrop, who could blame Americans for skipping the Gore–Kemp debate? As a spectacle, it was peculiarly inert. These would-be faces of twenty-first-century politics—manicured, kindly, aloof—appealed more to each other than to voters. Yes, it can be jarring today to watch the vice-presidential candidates of 1996 treat each other with basic kindness, and yes, one can comfortably prefer the Kemps and Gores of the world to the majority of contemporary political figures. But you can’t shake the feeling that their civility, though rooted in genuine affection, was part of a marketing strategy no more sophisticated than Crystal Pepsi’s.

The Kemp–Gore debate was tonally dishonest, too flat and boring to be trusted. By contrast, the vicious, vacuous debates between Biden and Trump perhaps reflected the national mood too truly. They were unwatchable; tens of millions watched them, and Trump’s blunt-force invective soon led to insurrection. If these are our options—empty courtesy or violent mobs—a retreat to the genteel mores of 1996 sounds appealing. But we should wish for something better than boredom. The Kemp–Gore debate was historically unpopular for a reason: it ignored a country nearly as divided and hollow as our own. Kemp’s own party shunned him for playing nice. When he said that the world was watching to see our democracy function “with civility and respect,” he must have known that in America, the former never guarantees the latter.

  1. Limbaugh died this month at 70, of lung cancer. In the mid-’90s, he became fond of smoking cigars during his radio broadcasts. “Just having one in my hand seems to lower whatever inhibitions I have just a bit,” he told Cigar Aficionado in 1994, “and bring out the expressiveness of my personality.” 

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