Jack Kennedy

Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy

"Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy" was a phrase spoken during the 1988 United States vice-presidential debate by Democratic vice-presidential candidate Senator Lloyd Bentsen to Republican vice-presidential candidate Senator Dan Quayle. Jack Kennedy was a reference to John F. Kennedy, the 35th President of the United States. Since then, the words "You're no Jack Kennedy," or some variation on Bentsen's remark, have become a part of the political lexicon as a way to deflate politicians or other individuals perceived as thinking too highly of themselves.


The debate was held on October 5, 1988, at the Civic Auditorium in Omaha, Nebraska. One of the moderators, Judy Woodruff, set the stage by addressing the audience: "Based on the history since World War II, there is almost a 50-50 chance that one of the two men here tonight will become President of the United States." She was referring to the probability that the man elected Vice President would later become President, either by succession or by a presidential bid.

At the time of the debate, nine vice-presidents had succeeded to the Presidency due to death or resignation, and three sitting vice-presidents had gone on to be elected President. (President George H. W. Bush would be the fourth.)

After Quayle became George H. W. Bush's vice presidential running mate, questions were raised in the press about his age; his limited term of service in the Senate; his grades in college; his National Guard duty (which Democrats claimed helped him avoid serving in the military during the Vietnam War); and his overall ability to lead the nation in the case of the incapacitation of the President, which became a central issue in the 1988 debate.

As Quayle had routinely been comparing himself to Kennedy in his stump speech, many people believed that Bentsen's remark had been scripted beforehand. Bentsen did casually remark in a mock debate with Dennis Eckhart, "you're no Jack Kennedy and George Bush is no Ronald Reagan."

Quayle did not directly compare himself with Kennedy in terms of accomplishment, but in terms of length of Congressional service; Quayle served for 12 years while Kennedy served for 14. When Kennedy successfully sought the Democratic nomination in 1960, he had less experience than his primary opponents, most of whom had more seniority in the Senate.


A full transcript of the 1988 vice-presidential debates from the Commission on Presidential Debates can be found here

The relevant portion of that transcript follows.

Tom Brokaw: Senator Quayle, I don't mean to beat this drum until it has no more sound in it. But to follow up on Brit Hume's question, when you said that it was a hypothetical situation, it is, sir, after all, the reason that we're here tonight, because you are running not just for Vice President — (Applause) — and if you cite the experience that you had in Congress, surely you must have some plan in mind about what you would do if it fell to you to become President of the United States, as it has to so many Vice Presidents just in the last 25 years or so.

Quayle: Let me try to answer the question one more time. I think this is the fourth time that I've had this question.

Brokaw: The third time.

Quayle: Three times that I've had this question — and I will try to answer it again for you, as clearly as I can, because the question you are asking is, "What kind of qualifications does Dan Quayle have to be president," "What kind of qualifications do I have," and "What would I do in this kind of a situation?" And what would I do in this situation? [...] I have far more experience than many others that sought the office of vice president of this country. I have as much experience in the Congress as Jack Kennedy did when he sought the presidency. I will be prepared to deal with the people in the Bush administration, if that unfortunate event would ever occur.

Judy Woodruff: Senator [Bentsen]?

Bentsen: Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy: I knew Jack Kennedy; Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy. (Prolonged shouts and applause.) What has to be done in a situation like that is to call in the —

Woodruff: Please, please, once again you are only taking time away from your own candidate.

Quayle: That was really uncalled for, Senator. (Shouts and applause.)

Bentsen: You are the one that was making the comparison, Senator — and I'm one who knew him well. And frankly I think you are so far apart in the objectives you choose for your country that I did not think the comparison was well-taken.


Quayle's reaction to Bentsen's comment was played and replayed by the Democrats in their subsequent television ads as an announcer intoned: "Quayle: just a heartbeat away." It proved sure-laugh fodder for comedians, and more and more editorial cartoons depicted Quayle as an infant or child (Saturday Night Live actually used a child actor to portray Quayle in several sketches). Bentsen's remark caused Quayle's comparison to Kennedy to be dropped immediately from his stump speech, but it continued to haunt him.

The controversy generated much press but public opinion polls did not change, and the Republicans maintained a solid lead. Although Quayle was embarrassed, many believed that he had otherwise accomplished what he had planned to in the debate; spending his time pouring scorn on the record of Michael Dukakis (in particular, deriding him as a liberal) all while avoiding a match-up with the more experienced Bentsen. The Bush-Quayle ticket defeated Dukakis-Bentsen in the presidential election by a comfortable margin.


Four years later at the 1992 Republican National Convention, Ronald Reagan answered claims by Bill Clinton's campaign, while poking fun at his own age, by saying, "This fellow they've nominated claims he's the new Thomas Jefferson. Well, let me tell you something. I knew Thomas Jefferson. He was a friend of mine. And governor, you're no Thomas Jefferson."

References to and parodies of the famous quote have often appeared in popular culture. On an episode of Saturday Night Live, several candidates for the Democratic nomination for President of the United States were debating each other at a time when President George H.W. Bush was enjoying enormous popularity in the polls. All of the candidates tried to make the other ones look good since no one wanted to face Bush in the election. At one point, Bentsen, played by host Kiefer Sutherland, remarked, "I served with Jack Kennedy, I knew Jack Kennedy, Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. I am no Jack Kennedy."

Ronald Reagan's daughter Patti Davis paraphrased the quotation in reference to a number of Presidential candidates invoking her father's name during the 2008 United States Presidential campaign, "Where is Lloyd Bentsen when you need him? 'I knew Ronald Reagan... senator (or governor), you're no Ronald Reagan.'

At the end of the 2002 New Mexico Gubernatorial Debate, the floor was opened to questions from the audience. One of the "questions", directed to Bill Richardson, was "I knew Toney Anaya, Toney Anaya was a friend of mine, and sir, you're no Toney Anaya". Richardson's only response was "Well, that was original.



  • Germond, Jack W. and Witcover, Jules, Whose Broad Stripes and Bright Stars: The Trivial Pursuit of the Presidency 1988, Warner Books, New York, 1989. ISBN 0-446-39187-5

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