The Five Keys to Winning a Debate


If President Joe Biden — despite calls to step aside — remains determined to stay in the presidential race, he will again meet former president Donald Trump for a debate scheduled for September 10. After his flawed June 27 performance, it is clear Biden requires better preparation. Where will he get that improved advice?

Will Biden again spend time with associates burdening him with numbers and statistics instead of preparing him to face the rally-honed teller of lies and half-truths? Or will the president seek help along simpler, more proven lines?

As it turns out, I am currently reading Doris Kearns Goodwin’s An Unfinished Love Story, an account of life with her husband Dick Goodwin who wrote speeches for both John F. Kennedy and Lynden Baines Johnson. In the book, Kearns Goodwin tells of the couple’s last great adventure: finally digging through boxes of letters, diaries, documents, and memorabilia that Dick had saved for 50 years. At one point, they came across Dick Goodwin’s memo of advice on how to prepare for a televised debate.

The memo captured Goodwin’s advice to Jack Kennedy when the latter was getting ready to face Richard Nixon in 1960.  Dick Goodwin recapped that advice for RFK when the latter was scheduled for a TV debate with New York Senator Kenneth Keating. After much discussion, the Keating debate never materialized. But, as Kearns Goodwin points out, the advice is useful for any televised political debate. Here are Dick’s simple suggestions:

  1. “You are not trying to win an argument. You are not trying to score points. You are trying to make people vote for you…The basic element is the candidate’s own ability and personality.”
  2. “Remember you may be on camera when (your opponent) speaks. Always listen to him attentively: If he says something funny – often directed against you – smile. If he says something ludicrous – smile. And don’t forget to smile anyway.
  3. “Don’t answer immediately. Hesitate a moment to think and not appear over eager or impetuous. Keep remarks brief and simple and understandable. Don’t use a lot of facts: one or two will show you know what you are talking about. Then speak for a minute, affirmatively and simply, giving your position.”

In addition to those three points, there are tips scattered through Kearns-Goodwin’s book, especially on pages when she tells how she and Dick shared a bottle of wine while reviewing footage of the first of the Nixon-Kennedy debates. Dick confided that he was startled before that first debate to find JFK napping. A smattering of his other advice:

  1. “Don’t speak to your opponent but to the audience. First impressions matter, the candidates’ early statements are the ones that stick with viewers. Style towers over substance.”
  2. “Tell at least one story about yourself that will resonate. Tell where the country is now and where it is going.”

Those are the basics for a winning political debate and, although others might not have to face an opponent as unconventional and dishonest as Trump, Goodwin’s advice still remains valuable. Too bad Team Biden didn’t dust off these sage reminders.

Jean Godden
Jean Godden
Jean Godden wrote columns first for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and late for the Seattle Times. In 2002, she quit to run for City Council where she served for 12 years. Since then she published a book of city stories titled “Citizen Jean.” She is now co-host of The Bridge aired on community station KMGP at 101.1 FM. You can email tips and comments to Jean at


  1. Let me see if I can find Kathy Cain’s post. Seems she was suggesting there were 2 liars in this race and loads of B.S. and half truths from both political candidates.

  2. Many thanks for reading the book and finding the memo in it. I don’t think it’s as sage advice now as it was back then. Times have changed. People disagreed, but they used to be civil. There’s a level of “vitriol and pure hostility”, as Fauchi put it, that didn’t exist in the past. Despite appearances, Trump is a smart guy and the Democrats have always underestimated him. Biden was not prepped nor prepared for what he encountered. I doubt he will be for the next debate either.

  3. The challenge of being ready for that, boggles the mind. People have to take some responsibility. No knight in shining armor is going to ride into this debate format and slay the ogre, but at the end of the show you still have a knight in shining armor and an ogre, and unlike the fairy tale, the girl doesn’t have to go to the “winner.”

  4. Biden’s handlers failed miserably in debate prep. First, the showman is practiced at filling 90 minutes of scripted remarks. Did anyone notice that Trump did not answer interviewer questions? Trump’s remarks were tightly scripted as he hit every key message. Biden’s people knew Trump would lie, so why didn’t Biden call “Malarkey” 30 times, and that would have been the headline? Trump’s handlers are adept television producers who know how to fill 90 minutes, which is exactly what they did.


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