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Kennedy and Nixon squared off in the first televised presidential debate and politics have never been the same

JFK NixonThe Nixon-Kennedy presidential debates were the first ever to be televised. The match-up highlighted the importance of image and playing to the cameras in politics.

American politics stumbled into a new era. In WBBM-TV studios in Chicago on September 26, 1960, presidential candidates Richard M. Nixon and John F. Kennedy stood before cameras and hot lights for the first-ever televised presidential debate. An extraordinary 60 percent of adults nationwide tuned in. This encounter—the first of four—boosted support for Kennedy, a little-known Massachusetts senator and political scion who would go on to win the White House.

Nixon, then vice president, was expected to perform brilliantly against Kennedy, but few politicians have ever bombed so badly. The striking contrast of their images on the television screen made all the difference. Elections in the United States would never be the same again.
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Young Nixon

No single aspect of presidential campaigns attracts as much interest as televised debates, and they have provided some of the most memorable moments in modern political history.

An enervated and emaciated Richard Nixon spent the day in seclusion in his suite at the Pick-Congress Hotel.
The GOP presidential nominee’s contact with the outside world was mostly limited to a phone call from his running mate, Henry Cabot Lodge, who warned Nixon to avoid the “assassin image” when he went on national TV at 8:30 that evening.

At the Ambassador East Hotel, a relaxed and sun-tanned John Kennedy prepared for the same TV show by napping on a bed littered with fact-crammed three-by-five note cards. Later, still sprawled in bed, Kennedy batted around possible questions with his aides — and when he nailed an answer, JFK gleefully tossed the relevant note card to the floor.

On September 26, 1960, presidential candidates Richard M. Nixon and John F. Kennedy stood before cameras for the first-ever televised presidential debate.

That night 70 million Americans — about the same number as would vote for president six weeks later — watched as Nixon and Kennedy met on stage at WBBM for the most fateful hour in the history of political television. Their opening debate was long-winded by modern standards with eight minute opening statements plus a panel of four reporters who hurled questions at the two candidates as they stood behind music-stand lecterns to respond. But the questions were not what were remembered — unless you cared passionately that the two men jousted over the proper formula for farm subsidies.

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Body Language – Nixon is sweating [1960] – Debate with Kennedy.

That first Kennedy-Nixon debate ushered in the Visual Age when how a candidate looked mattered more than what he said. The 1952 and 1956 presidential races had offered a choice between two candidates, Dwight Eisenhower and Adlai Stevenson, whose balding domes would have (in a later era) made them prime customers for the Hair Club for Men. But rarely, if ever, in modern times have the two parties nominated such capable candidates — the general who won World War II and then commanded NATO forces in Europe versus the eloquent former diplomat who became the governor of Illinois.
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In telegenic terms, the first Great Debate was a rout. Kennedy came across as robust and dynamic, the embodiment of his debate line, “It’s time America started moving again.” And the sweaty Nixon — whose light dusting of pancake makeup called “Lazy Shave” failed to hide his 5 o’clock shadow — brought to mind the old Democratic jibe: “Would you buy a used car from this man?”
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Everything went wrong for Nixon. His shirt collar gaped at the neck because of the weight he had lost on the campaign trail, and his light-gray suit (JFK wore dark blue) blended into the painted background that did not offer much contrast on black-and-white television. But the most powerful visual was simply the two candidates standing side-by-side. In his political classic, “The Making of the President, 1960,” Theodore White writes, “Until the cameras opened up on the Senator and the Vice-President, Kennedy had been the boy under assault and attack by the Vice-President as immature, young, and inexperienced. Now, obviously, in flesh and behavior he was the Vice-President’s equal.”While Nixon’s image-makers convinced him to wear full theatrical makeup during his next three 1960 debates with Kennedy, these subsequent High Noon face-offs for the presidency underscored the enduring weaknesses of the question-and-short-answers format. A debate organized around reporters (or, in recent years, typical voters) asking questions can easily veer off into trivia or campaign boilerplate.
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During the third 1960 debate, a reporter asked Kennedy if he felt obligated to apologize forthe profanity of Harry Truman’s campaign remark that anyone who votes Republican can (horrors!) “go to hell.” That gave JFK the opportunity to show off his dry wit: “I really don’t think there’s anything that I could say to President Truman that’s going to cause him, at the age of 76, to change his particular speakingmanner. Perhaps Mrs. Truman can, but I don’t think I can.” Even more comic in hindsight (especially in light of the expletive-deleted Watergate tapes) was the way that Nixon unctuously responded, “Whoever is president is going to be aman that all the children of America will either look up to — or will look down to.”The  final Kennedy-Nixon showdown featured perhaps the most duplicitous moment in a half century of presidential debates. The United States had just an announced a trade embargo against Fidel Castro’s Cuba — sanctions, which incidentally, are also now in their 50th year. Kennedy, in his opening statement, dismissed such measures as inadequate because “the Communists have been moving with vigor — Laos, Africa, Cuba — all around the world.”
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Asked about Kennedy’s comments during the first question of the debate, Nixon responded with a passionate case for non-intervention in Cuba. The vice president prophetically warned that military action against Cuba would provide “an open invitation for Mr. Khrushchev to come in, to come into Latin America, to engage us in what would be a civil war.”
family-watching-1st-kennedynixondebateThe only problem for 1960 voters watching the debate was that everything Nixon said was diametrically opposite to what he actually believed. Nixon had been a staunch advocate inside the Eisenhower administration for an invasion to topple Castro and had been briefed by the CIA about its work with Cuban exiles to launch what ultimately would become the Bay of Pigs debacle. Worried that any hawkish comment during the debate would alert Castro to the invasion threat (which, in truth, the Cuban dictator already knew about), Nixon’s immediate instinct was to (surprise!) lie.
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Kennedy had a sure sense of who he was, and it seemed to radiate that night. Countless viewers agreed. Later, Kennedy said that he never would have won the White House without the televised debates, which so effectively brought him into the living rooms of more than 65 million people.
John F Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon

John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon at the first televised presidential debate at the old CBS 2 studios.

How much do debates really tell us about how well a candidate will perform in office?

Former President George H. W. Bush saw no connection between being a good debater and a good president.

“You can have a good president that might not be the best in the top of his game in a staged debate,” he told Jim Lehrer for a PBS series on the role of debates in presidential elections. “But maybe he can do it quietly, maybe he can do it without having a hair part and make-up just right and a smile at the right time.”

Former President Clinton, in another interview for the PBS series, said presidential debates are an important component of the democratic process, but he also acknowledged their shortcomings.

“They don’t test all the skills,” he said. “They don’t really show whether you’re a good decision maker, although they show whether you can understand a situation in a hurry and respond to it, particularly if there’s a surprise question or, you know, a surprise development in the kind of the chemistry of the players. They don’t show whether you’re good at putting together a team and carrying out a plan, but they do give people a feel for what kind of leader the debater would be, how much the person knows, and generally how they approach the whole idea of being president.”

Have debates really elevated presidential campaigns to a higher intellectual plane than was possible back in primitive times when candidates gave serious speeches sitting behind a desk on radio and early television? Presidential debates are undeniably fun, even if I find it hard to remember anything other than the over-hyped Joe the Plumber from the three times that Barack Obama squared off against John McCain. But by placing such a battle-for-the-Oval Office premium on clever one-liners and quick-react short answers with the time clock running, presidential debates are often closer in spirit to reality TV than to Lincoln and Douglas. I sometimes wonder if American politics might not been better off today if Kennedy and Nixon had somehow missed their rendezvous with history at WBBM 55 years ago.

Kennedy-Nixon First Presidential Debate, 1960

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