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8 People Who Played Presidential Candidates in Mock Debates

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You’ve probably heard that Barack Obama recruited Massachusetts senator and ketchup-magnate-by-marriage John Kerry to play Mitt Romney in mock debates. But Obama certainly isn’t the first president to fine-tune his skills through pseudo smackdowns. In fact, almost every presidential candidate in recent years has hired a surrogate sparring partner. Here are 8 all-star stand-ins and the politicians they portrayed.

1. Television Monitor as Jimmy Carter (1976)

Gerald Ford staged the first full-scale practice sessions in 1976. Ford had a few different people play his opponent, Jimmy Carter. But when a human sparring partner wasn’t around, Ford used a television monitor to play sound bites from Carter’s interview with Meet the Press. Mock panelists asked the monitor questions, and Carter’s pre-taped response would play back. To practice looking confident, Ford was supposed to gaze forcefully at his TV opponent during the replays.

2. Samuel Popkin as Ronald Reagan (1980)

At first, Jimmy Carter thought the notion of practicing with a “dummy opponent” was nuts. But the incumbent president softened his stance when he was forced to square off with show business veteran Ronald Reagan.

Carter hired political science professor Sam Popkin to play ol’ Dutch. Popkin studied Reagan’s rhetoric extensively and devised a strategy memo for outwitting him called “Popping Balloons.” Popkin told Carter if he couldn’t beat one of Reagan’s stories with a fact, he should try to beat it with another story. He also tried to familiarize Carter with his opponent’s folksy oratory style by recycling old Reagan speeches during debates.

3. David Stockman as Jimmy Carter/Walter Mondale (1980 and 1984)

Eager to master the art of full-scale debate rehearsal, Ronald Reagan had his garage converted into a professional quality television studio and hired congressman David Stockman to stand in for Jimmy Carter. The practice proved helpful, helping to familiarize the veteran actor with a debate format . . . and landing Stockman a job as budget director once Reagan was elected.

But in 1984, all that practice backfired. Reagan’s team believed Mondale would be a scrappy fighter, so they encouraged Stockman to really bully the president during mock debates. Stockman’s brow beatings destroyed the president’s confidence – to the point where his wife asked, “What have you done to my husband?” After a rough first debate, the Reagan campaign staged a pep rally at the president’s Kansas City hotel to boost his spirits before the second face-off. Reagan rebounded – and ended up winning 49 out of the 50 states.

4. Fred Thompson as Bill Clinton (1996)

Bob Dole hired former actor Fred Thompson to fill the shoes of Bill Clinton. A fellow Southerner, Thompson could replicate Clinton’s raspy drawl with astounding accuracy. And when it came to attacking Dole, Thompson didn’t pull any punches. “I tried to beat him down!” Thompson once told NPR. “If you can generate a bit of hostility, that’s a good thing.”

5. Bob Barnett as George H.W. Bush/ Dick Cheney (Many Times)

This Washington D.C. attorney played a Republican rival in five campaigns – filling in for George H.W. Bush in 1984, 1988, and 1992 and Dick Cheney in 2000 and 2004.

Barnett’s relentless baiting drove his mock opponents crazy. During his 1984 practice debates with Geraldine Ferraro, the vice presidential hopeful often became so irritated with Barnett that she walked over and slugged him on the arm. And after grueling 1992 debate preparations, Bill Clinton said, “I was just so glad I didn’t have to debate [him]. The election might have turned out differently.”

6. Judd Gregg as Al Gore/John Kerry (2000 and 2004)

New Hampshire senator Judd Gregg acted as Democratic doppelgangers in 2000 and 2004. For Gregg, playing Gore was a piece of cake. He claimed that the then-vice president was mechanical, scientific, and uber-predictable. But he had a tougher time playing Kerry. He maintained that the notoriously flip-flopping senator was hard to pin down because he went in a few different directions when he spoke.

But regardless of whom he was playing, Gregg’s job was to push George Bush’s buttons – and he was good at it. On one occasion in 2000, Gregg’s relentless bushwhacking (no pun intended) sent the presidential hopeful over the edge. Bush became flustered and started angrily repeating the same points in a raised voice. Worried that the pseudo sparring match had gotten too real, an aide stopped the debate to let things cool down.

7. Greg Craig as George W. Bush/John McCain (2004 and 2008)

In the past two elections, Democrats called on Washington lawyer (and former White House counsel) Greg Craig to prep presidential hopefuls to face-off with Republican rivals. Craig was no stranger to controversial debates – he won an acquittal for John W. Hinckley, Jr., the man who attempted to assassinate Ronald Reagan. Moreover, Craig directed the team defending Clinton against impeachment following the Monica Lewinsky scandal. The powerhouse attorney was no Dana Carvey; he didn’t mimic his doppelgangers’ body language or accents. Instead, he focused on suffocating his pseudo-opponents with airtight logic.

8. Rob Portman as Half the Democratic Party (1996-)

For years, Ohio congressman Rob Portman has been the GOP’s go-to guy for getting inside the heads of Democratic rivals. Since 1996, Portman’s filled the shoes of Al Gore, Joe Lieberman, John Edwards, Barack Obama, and even Hillary Clinton.

Portman had an uncanny ability to capture the mannerisms of the candidates – right down to subtle body movements and vocal pauses. Republicans claimed he magically “became Barack Obama” during the 2008 practice debates with John McCain. Rick Lazio, who ran against Clinton for the Senate, remarked on his astounding ability to channel the first lady – even without a wig or makeup. And Joe Lieberman jokingly referred to Portman as his alter ego. Lieberman once said, "I've tried on occasion when I couldn't make it to a speaking engagement to send Rob Portman."

And Three All-Star Vice-Presidential Stand-ins...

Jennifer Granholm as Sarah Palin

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Tina Fey and Julianne Moore aren't the only women to portray Sarah Palin onstage. Michigan governor and fellow beauty pageant winner Jennifer Granholm helped Joe Biden practice debating the Alaska governor in 2008. Granholm studied Palin nonstop. To get in character, she wore glasses and a red suit. But did she go the extra mile and try her hand at that famously folksy Alaska accent? You betcha.

Randy Scheunemann as Joe Biden

To prep Palin for the 2008 vice presidential debates, neoconservative lobbyist Randy Scheunemann played Joe Biden. He really got into character – so much so that Palin could barely keep a straight face. Scheunemann peppered his performance with frequent mentions of “God love ya” and “literally.” He also copied Biden’s loquacious speaking style, going on rants about everything from gun control to his own mother.

But while Palin was certainly convinced by her faux-opponent’s performance, she kept accidentally calling him “O’Biden.” That’s when Scheunemann suggested that she take a folksy approach and start calling him “Joe.”

Dennis Eckart as Dan Quayle

Former Ohio Congressman Dennis Eckart had a lot in common with the then-vice president. Both were young, telegenic Midwesterners who loved golf. Eckart joked that he got into character by spending hours at the Congressional Country Club. Once he even went through a mock debate with a golf tee stuck behind his ear. Eckart, a former college actor, said he loved “getting into the head” of people he played. But when reporters asked him what he found inside Quayle’s head, he answered, “Room to maneuver.”

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Big Questions
What Does the Sergeant at Arms Do?
House Sergeant at Arms Paul Irving and Donald Trump arrive for a meeting with the House Republican conference.
House Sergeant at Arms Paul Irving and Donald Trump arrive for a meeting with the House Republican conference.
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In 1981, shortly after Howard Liebengood was elected the 27th Sergeant at Arms of the United States Senate, he realized he had no idea how to address incoming president-elect Ronald Reagan on a visit. “The thought struck me that I didn't know what to call the President-elect,'' Liebengood told The New York Times in November of that year. ''Do you call him 'President-elect,' 'Governor,' or what?” (He went with “Sir.”)

It would not be the first—or last—time someone wondered what, exactly, a Sergeant at Arms (SAA) should be doing. Both the House and the Senate have their own Sergeant at Arms, and their visibility is highest during the State of the Union address. For Donald Trump’s State of the Union on January 30, the 40th Senate SAA, Frank Larkin, will escort the senators to the House Chamber, while the 36th House of Representatives SAA, Paul Irving, will introduce the president (“Mister [or Madam] Speaker, the President of the United States!”). But the job's responsibilities extend far beyond being an emcee.

The Sergeants at Arms are also their respective houses’ chief law enforcement officers. Obliging law enforcement duties means supervising their respective wings of the Capitol and making sure security is tight. The SAA has the authority to find and retrieve errant senators and representatives, to arrest or detain anyone causing disruptions (even for crimes such as bribing representatives), and to control who accesses chambers.

In a sense, they act as the government’s bouncers.

Sergeant at Arms Frank Larkin escorts China's president Xi Jinping
Senat Sergeant at Arms Frank Larkin (L) escorts China's president Xi Jinping during a visit to Capitol Hill.
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This is not a ceremonial task. In 1988, Senate SAA Henry Giugni led a posse of Capitol police to find, arrest, and corral Republicans missing for a Senate vote. One of them, Republican Senator Bob Packwood of Oregon, had to be carried to the Senate floor to break the filibustering over a vote on senatorial campaign finance reform.

While manhandling wayward politicians sounds fun, it’s more likely the SAAs will be spending their time on administrative tasks. As protocol officer, visits to Congress by the president or other dignitaries have to be coordinated and escorts provided; as executive officer, they provide assistance to their houses of Congress, with the Senate SAA assisting Senate offices with computers, furniture, mail processing, and other logistical support. The two SAAs also alternate serving as chairman of the Capitol Police board.

Perhaps a better question than asking what they do is pondering how they have time to do it all.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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politics
Grave Sightings: Hubert Humphrey
Stacy Conradt
Stacy Conradt

With the state of politics lately, it’s hard to imagine a generous act of kindness from one political rival to another. But if Hubert Humphrey and Richard Nixon were capable of burying the hatchet, there’s hope for anyone.

Humphrey, a senator from Minnesota, ran for president several times. In 1952, he lost the Democratic nomination to Adlai Stevenson. In 1960, of course, he faced a charismatic young senator from Massachusetts named Jack Kennedy. In 1968, Humphrey, who was vice president at the time, came closest to the presidency—but Nixon triumphed by a little more than 500,000 popular votes.


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Though he graciously admitted defeat and pledged to help the new president-elect, Humphrey wasn’t shy about criticizing Nixon. Just 10 months after Nixon took office, Humphrey stated that the administration had done “poorly—very poorly” overall, citing the increase in interest rates and the cost of living. Nixon and his team, Humphrey said, had “forgotten the people it said it would remember.” He was still making his opinions known four years after the election, turning his eye to Vietnam. “Had I been elected, we would now be out of that war,” he told the press on January 10, 1972.


Stacy Conradt

The Watergate scandal broke later that year, and Humphrey no doubt felt validated. He mounted another unsuccessful bid for the presidency in 1972, but lost the nomination to George McGovern. Humphrey briefly considered trying one more time in 1976, but ultimately nixed the idea. "It's ridiculous — and the one thing I don't need at this stage in my life is to be ridiculous," he said. The public didn’t know it at the time but the politician had been battling bladder cancer for several years. By August 1977, the situation had become terminal, and Humphrey was aware that his days were numbered.

When he knew he had just a few weeks left to live, Humphrey did something that would stun both Republicans and Democrats: He called former rival Richard Nixon and invited him to his upcoming funeral. He knew that Nixon had been depressed and isolated in his political exile, and despite the Watergate scandal and the historical bad blood, he wanted Nixon to have a place of honor at the ceremony. Humphrey knew his death would give the former president a plausible reason to return to Washington, and told Nixon to say he was there at the personal request of Hubert Humphrey if anyone questioned his motives.

Humphrey died on January 13, 1978—and when the funeral was held a few days later, Nixon did, indeed, attend. He stayed out of the Washington limelight, emerging right before the ceremony—to audible gasps. Humphrey’s gracious act must have been on Nixon’s mind when he listened to Vice President Walter Mondale sing the fallen senator’s praises: “He taught us all how to hope, and how to love, how to win and how to lose. He taught us how to live, and finally he taught us how to die.”

Nixon wasn’t the only former foe whom Humphrey had mended fences with. Barry Goldwater, who ran against Humphrey in 1964, had this to say:

“I served with him in the Senate, I ran against him in campaigns, I debated with him, I argued with him. But I don’t think I have ever enjoyed a friendship as much as the one that existed between the two of us. I know it may sound strange to people who see in Hubert a liberal and who see in me a conservative, that the two of us could ever get together; but I enjoyed more good laughs, more good advice, more sound counsel from him that I have from most anyone I have been associated with in this business of trying to be a senator.”

After the ceremony in D.C., Humphrey was buried at Lakewood Cemetery in Minneapolis. His wife, Muriel, joined him there when she died 20 years later.

Peruse all the entries in our Grave Sightings series here.

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