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.
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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.
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.