Paul Kengor recalls the “debate” between Ronald Reagan and Robert F. Kennedy before a crowd of young radicals in 1967, broadcast on CBS. Kengor notes that Kennedy got his clock cleaned by Reagan, but that was not the most memorable part of the evening. Reagan, then newly elected governor of California, handled the hostile questions from the students with deftness and clarity.
Reagan and Kennedy ended up debating the group of students, not one another. And it was there that Reagan was so effective, whereas Kennedy was passive, meek, and apologetic. Alarmed viewers looking for a defense of the United States as anything other than history’s greatest purveyor of global misery were frustrated by Kennedy’s lame responses but buoyed by Reagan’s strong retorts.