Skip to comments.Fifty Years After: 1960ís Kennedy-Nixon Debates
Posted on 09/25/2010 4:37:41 AM PDT by statestreet
On September 26, 1960 cathode rays changed presidential politics forever.
For on that Monday evening Richard Nixon and Jack Kennedy faced off on the first televised presidential debate in American campaign history.
Neither Nixon nor Kennedy was a stranger to debates. Kennedy had faced Henry Cabot Lodge for the United States Senate in 1952 and both Hubert Humphrey and Lyndon Johnson in the run-up to winning his partys 1960 nomination. Richard Nixon had won honors as a high school and college debater. He captured more than honorshe won electionsdebating incumbent Jerry Voorhees for Congress in 1946 and Helen Gahagan Douglas for the Senate in 1950. He established an international reputation as a defender of American values, debating Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev from Moscows Sokolniki Park in July 1959.
Television had made Richard Nixon more than it had made Jack Kennedy. The debate against Khrushchev, televised to American audiences, resuscitated Nixons fortunes, as the Republican Party had threatened to capsize followed the disastrous 1958 mid-term elections. Nixons September 1952 Checkers Speech, had proven even more crucial to his survival. Before the young mediums largest-to-date audience, Nixon laid his finances and his soul bare and salvaged not only the family cocker spaniel but also his tenuous hold on the vice-presidential nomination.
Thus, as 1960 commenced, Richard Nixon, not John Fitzgerald Kennedy, was the candidate of the television age.
That, however, availed Nixon little in the first of his four 1960 debates against Jack Kennedy.
Newsmen like Marquis Child, Joseph Alsop, Howard K. Smith, Scotty Reston, and Tom Wicker, however, fixated more on trees than forests and failed to grasp the import of Richard Nixons sweating, halting, lackluster first night demeanor. Most of them had concentrated so much on the content of the debate that they offered few opinions on the outcome . . . , recalled Nixon press chief Herb Klein, It was only later when the public opinion favoring Kennedy started seeping in that the press began its interpretation of the debates negative consequences on Richard Nixons campaign for the presidency.
Those listening on radio also missed what happened. Listening to the debate over his car radio somewhere in Texas, Lyndon Johnson fumed regarding his running mate, The Boy didnt win.
But only seventeen million persons heard the debate over radio. Tens of millions more saw it on television, and the effect devastated Nixons chances.
I left the studio thinking, My God, we dont have to wait until election day. We have a president, recalled CBSs Don Hewitt, producer of that nights contest, Thats bad. Nobody should be elected president of the United States because hes a better TV performer than the guy hes running against.
We all say a Democratic make-up artist made [Nixon] up, said John Hall, business agent of Chicagos Make-up and Hair Stylist Union local, They loused him up so badly that a Republican couldnt have done that job.
How many of these debates do we have? exulted Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley, Buy the time for more if you dont have any free ones. The debates will make Kennedy President.
That son-of-a-bitch, snapped Nixons running-mate Henry Cabot Lodge, when the debate ended, just lost us the election!
LBJ didnt want to debate in 1964, and Congress, heeding his wishes, failed to lift the FCCs Equal Time Rule. Richard Nixon didnt care to debate either in 1968 or 1972. But Gerald Ford, his accidentally-presidential back to the wall, resuscitated the debate scenario in 1976. A new tradition was created, impossible to dislodge from the campaign scene at virtually any level. The riposte and the gaffe rule the agenda, whether it is Gerry Fords missteps regarding Soviet domination of Eastern Europe or Michael Dukakis robotic response to CNN reporter Bernard Shaws query regarding crime-and-punishment. Or Ronald Reagan sequentially skewering George H. W. Bush (Im paying for this microphone), then Jimmy Carter (Are you better off now than you were four years ago?), and then Walter Mondale (I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponents youth and inexperience). Or Lloyd Bentsen demolishing Dan Quayle for not being the JFK that Bentsen, in truth, barely knew.
Whether composed of sound bites or substance, tinsel or truth, 1960s Nixon-Kennedy presidential debates have bequeathed to us a campaign tradition that in an age where everything else changes, remains for good or ill a nearly immutable part of our political firmament.
David Pietrusza is the author of 1960: LBJ vs JFK vs Nixon: The Epoch Campaign that Forged Three Presidencies.
I watched this debate in 1960. Yes, Nixon sweated and his heavy beard was discernible (sure signs of evil intent /sarc). But halting in his delivery he wasn’t.
1960: Where form triumphed over substance in a Presidential race. And the political DNA stain known as the Kennedys was loosed on the nation.
I am not the only one who believes (knows?) that the only thing that made Kennedy a "great" president was TV. Kennedy was telegenic. Without TV -- and color TV was well established by 1960 -- Kennedy would never have gotten enough votes for the Democrats to steal the election with fraud in Chicago and Texas.
By appearing bored and impatient during the presidential debate with Bill Clinton and Ross Perot, George H.W. Bush inadvertently reinforced his own image as an aloof patrician.
Al Gore's erratic performance in 2000 contributed to his loss to George W. Bush in one of the closest elections ever.
Compare this debate and the Reagan/Carter debate to the 2008 election debates.
It’s not pretty. We have a dope in office because the media, the DNC/RNC, “journalists” and election groups have dumbed down the questions and expected responses to the point of idiocy.
The first debate was broadcast from WBBM-TV (CBS) in Chicago, which was not yet in color. One of the cameras used in that debate is preserved at the Museum of Broadcast Communications, which had (and hopefully will once again have) a display on those debates.
I’m pretty sure that the remaining debates were also in B&W.
By the way, if anything, the infrared-sensitive Image Orthicon cameras of the day made Nixon’s six-oclock shadow look even worse.
Eight-minute sample: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QazmVHAO0os
I remember listening to one or more of the debates on the radio—we didn’t have a TV. They were about Quemoy and Matsu, as I recall.
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