U.S. Vice Presidential debate
When: 8 tonight
Where: Danville, Ky.
Moderator: Martha Raddatz, ABC News
Omaha was the site of the best-remembered line from a vice presidential debate, but local coordinator Karla Ewert remembers that night for something else — her two “brick phones,” one in each ear.
Brick phones? Picture early, portable phones the size of bricks.
Technologically, that was eons ago — 1988. She recalls colleagues teasing her for talking on two phones at once, listening to a Republican in one ear and a Democrat in the other.
“It was hilarious,” she admits.
That was the year that Lloyd Bentsen told Dan Quayle in Omaha that he was “no Jack Kennedy,” and several years before just about everyone started carrying a cellphone — and surfing the Internet.
Ewert is no Alexander Graham Bell, but she worked for the local phone company at the time, U S West, which became heavily involved. Unlike today, that was before Omaha was staging lots of national events.
“It was kind of the Olympic Swim Trials of that era,” she said. “Something that put Omaha on the map.”
Corporations and individuals volunteered time and money. Hosting the debate cost about $900,000, which Ewert said was mostly donated. The City of Omaha provided the venue, the Civic Auditorium, and budgeted at least $50,000 for police overtime.
Seven law enforcement agencies stood guard, including the Secret Service.
Omaha was selected as the site, she said, because Nebraska Gov. Kay Orr pushed hard for it as a member of the Commission on Presidential Debates. But there was little time to prepare.
“We had three weeks to pull it off,” said Ewert, who worked closely with Bart McEvoy (now deceased) as local coordinators. “We had a community committee of people who helped, and corporate leadership jumped behind it.”
She and others flew a donated corporate jet to Winston-Salem, N.C., to see firsthand the debate between President George H.W. Bush and his Democratic challenger, Gov. Michael Dukakis of Massachusetts.
The Omaha vice presidential debate between Sen. Dan Quayle, the Republican, and Sen. Lloyd Bentsen, the Democrat, was set for Oct. 5. Three nights earlier, as soon as a Civic Auditorium crowd filed out from a pro wrestling show, work started on clearing the arena to set up for the verbal headlocks and body slams to come.
“We worked right up to the last minute, finally deciding to put carpet down in the arena,” Ewert said. “We put sod and mums in an ugly parking lot. All the downtown buildings kept their lights on at night.”
Bill Williams of Omaha, who in recent years has organized “honor flights” of World War II veterans to visit the National WWII Memorial in Washington, D.C., was one of the many volunteers.
“I stopped by a few days ahead of time and asked if they needed anyone to staple things or whatnot,” Williams recalled. “I ended up being the usher in charge of the VIP section. I was a nobody, but it was a very exciting week.”
Cabdrivers and hotel-motel staffers were encouraged to talk about Omaha with visiting reporters and dignitaries. There was even a debate slogan: “Smile, Omaha! The World Is Watching.”
On debate night, an exhausted Ewert took a seat in the back, hoping the event would go off without a hitch. From an organizational standpoint, it did.
But then came the line for which the Omaha debate is remembered. After Quayle said his experience in Congress was comparable to that of John F. Kennedy before he ran for president, Bentsen delivered the line he is said to have practiced.
“Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy,” he said. “I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy.”
Retorted Quayle: “That was really uncalled for, Senator.”
It was high drama. Everyone knew that Bentsen's line would be memorable. Republicans, including President Ronald Reagan, called it a cheap shot. Democrats chortled.
An estimated 50 million viewers watched. After the debate, commentators and politicos gave their views downstairs in “spin alley.”
Among the spinners claiming the winner was the little-known Arkansas governor Bill Clinton. Hundreds of reporters, correspondents and technicians from the news media attended, too.
A post-debate World-Herald Poll of 571 registered Nebraska voters who watched the debate said 46 percent thought Bentsen had won, while 37 percent gave the victory to Quayle. An ABC News poll of 637 voters nationwide, with a 4.5 percentage-point margin of error, had it 51-27 for Bentsen.
Former Vice President Walter Mondale said the Omaha debate might be remembered as a turning point in the 1988 race for the presidency.
It wasn't. The Bush-Quayle ticket won, taking 40 states, including Nebraska.
Vice presidential debates don't normally swing many swing voters. Which isn't to say veep candidates aren't important — they must be qualified to be president.
Tonight's debate between Vice President Joe Biden and U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan will attract lots of viewers. It may or may not affect the outcome of the election.
As in 1988, it will pit a Democratic elder statesman in his late 60s against a Republican member of Congress in his early 40s.
Ewert, a registered independent, was 39 when she helped coordinate the Omaha debate; she is now the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce vice president for brand and image management. She has helped coordinate many other big events “telling the story of Omaha,” but she'll always remember the '88 debate.
“The energy in the room was amazing,” she said. “We had no idea it would be the vice presidential debate of all vice presidential debates.”
Contact the writer: