The Convention Confrontation: Gore Vidal vs. William F. Buckley, Jr. (1968)
The participants: By the late sixties, Gore Vidal was already a well-known and respected author and liberal political commentator; from the right, he was perfectly matched by conservative intellectual William F. Buckley, Jr., the founder of the National Review.
The venue: The year was 1968, and the times, according to numerous credible sources, were a-changin'. At the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, as protesters and police clashed in the streets, ABC News organized a series of battles for the small screen that came to reflect the deep divisions emerging in America at the time. Amidst nationwide political tumult, the ideological foes had a captive audience of millions as they played out a vitriolic back-and-forth of ad hominem attacks unlike anything else that had been seen or heard on TV before.
The issues: With eight debates on ABC in total, four each at the Republican and Democratic Conventions, any political issue was fair game. However, the big issue on everyone's mind was, of course, the war in Vietnam. With over 500,000 troops fighting the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong, the U.S. had a lot of chips on the table and nothing resembling a public consensus on how the cards should be played. It was in regards to the war that we get the debates' most memorable moments:
Buckley alleged some of the antiwar protesters outside were "pro-Nazi," and had "egg[ed] on other people to shoot American soldiers and American marines." Scratching his head, Vidal snapped back, "As far as I'm concerned the only sort of pro-Crypto Nazi I can think of is yourself." As you might expect, Buckley didn't take this well, calling Vidal a "queer" and threatening, "I'll sock you in the goddamned face and you'll stay plastered." As far as I know, even Bill O'Reilly and Keith Olbermann have never (publicly) threatened each other with physical violence.
The outcome: Gore's and Buckley's attitudes towards one another never really improved, but no one in their right mind expected them to. As the two men waged their war of words, nastiness (and lawsuits) became predictably familiar. After Buckley's passing in February of 2008, Vidal excoriated the press' coverage of the death and told his deceased enemy to "RIP"¦in hell."
The Evolution Agitation: Thomas Henry Huxley vs. Samuel Wilberforce (1860)
The participants: Thomas Huxley (left), grandfather of Brave New World author Aldous Huxley, was a self-educated agnostic and a close associate of Charles Darwin; Samuel Wilberforce was a bishop in the Church of England and a renowned public speaker who had openly condemned Charles Darwin's recently-published On the Origin of Species.
The venue: The Oxford University Museum of Natural History was the host of a meeting convened by the British Association for the Advancement of Science.
The issues: Hard as it may be to believe, evolution was hotly opposed before there was even a Kansas, much less a Kansas School Board. Indeed, Huxley himself was an opponent of the idea until Darwin made an effort, shortly before his most famous work was published, to convince his friend that natural selection was right. During the reading of a paper that cited Darwin's book, the well-known biologist Richard Owen incited a debate over the validity of the evolutionists' claims. Huxley stood up to respond, and before long an informal debate was scheduled. After a reportedly boring lecture by NYU professor John Draper, Huxley and Wilberforce were among those called upon to elaborate on their differing views.
Unlike the aforementioned Kansas School Board and other proponents of "intelligent design," Wilberforce allegedly backed up his skepticism with scientific arguments. (I say "allegedly" because there's no known verbatim record of the exchange "“ just accounts in post-debate letters from those present.) However, science or no science, Wilberforce is remembered for just one rhetorical point he made. According to American Scientist magazine, the bishop asked Huxley whether "it was through his grandfather or his grandmother that he claimed descent from a monkey."
Huxley's alleged reply? "If then the question is put to me whether I would rather have a miserable ape for a grandfather or a man highly endowed by nature and possessed of great means of influence and yet employs these faculties and that influence for the mere purpose of introducing ridicule into a grave scientific discussion, I unhesitatingly affirm my preference for the ape." Eat your heart out, Inherit the Wind.
The outcome: After Wilberforce and Huxley had finished this now-famous exchange, the captain of the H.M.S. Beagle, Admiral Robert FitzRoy, stood to denounce his former companion's book on religious grounds. He was followed by the botanist Joseph Hooker, who continued the arguments Huxley had begun on behalf of Darwin. After this, reports say that everyone peacefully and cheerfully went off to dinner together. Even though the debate ended without any clear resolution of who "won," history has declared Huxley and Hooker the winners.
The NAFTA Knockdown: Al Gore vs. Ross Perot (1993)
The participants: Al Gore, not yet in possession of an Academy Award or Nobel Peace Prize, was stuck in the dead-end job of Vice-President of the United States; Ross Perot had received 18.9 percent of the popular vote in the most recent presidential election, making him the most successful third-party candidate since Teddy Roosevelt.
The venue: The debate took up an episode of Larry King Live, the same show where Perot had declared his intention to run for the presidency a year and a half earlier. Someone has uploaded the debate in eight parts to YouTube (embedding is disabled), and it's more than a little eerie seeing how different all three men looked 16 years ago.
The issues: There was just one issue to debate "“ the North American Free Trade Agreement, a.k.a. NAFTA. Gore was in favor, while Perot was against. King preceded the debate by pointing out that, technically, it wasn't a debate, with no set time limits or other formal restrictions. Things got a bit volatile at times, especially after Gore insinuated that embracing Perot's ideas would be like asking for another Great Depression. With a new president in town and a record-size audience for a cable program, this was the perfect time for an even-handed debate about a serious policy issue. Shockingly, however, issues unrelated to the ever-so-thrilling nuts-and-bolts of trade policy are thought to have decided the end result.
The outcome: Perot lost. Political analysts at the time concluded that Gore was a more effective and controlled debater, and that Perot's temperament hindered his case. Despite what was considered a massive audience for cable, many of the newspapers covering the debate pointed out that it was for the benefit of only a few people: the 30 or so Congressmen unsure about the free trade legislation. NAFTA passed in the House of Representatives, 234-200, and in January 1, 1994 the agreement went into effect. However, Perot could claim one small victory from the evening: he had the most memorable line of the night. The debate is thought to have taken the phrase "giant sucking sound," which Perot coined during his '92 run for the presidency to refer to what people would hear coming from Mexico post-NAFTA, and cemented it into the lexicon.
The Thrilla in Manila: Mega Shark vs. Giant Octopus (2009)