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 party’s 1960 nomination. Richard Nixon had won honors as a high school and college debater. He captured more than honors—he won elections—debating 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 Moscow’s 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 Nixon’s fortunes, as the Republican Party had threatened to capsize followed the disastrous 1958 mid-term elections. Nixon’s September 1952 “Checkers Speech,” had proven even more crucial to his survival. Before the young medium’s 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 Nixon’s 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 debate’s negative consequences on Richard Nixon’s 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 didn’t win.”
But only seventeen million persons heard the debate over radio. Tens of millions more saw it on television, and the effect devastated Nixon’s chances.
“I left the studio thinking, ‘My God, we don’t have to wait until election day. We have a president,’” recalled CBS’s Don Hewitt, producer of that night’s contest, “That’s bad. Nobody should be elected president of the United States because he’s a better TV performer than the guy he’s running against.”
“We all say a Democratic make-up artist made [Nixon] up,” said John Hall, business agent of Chicago’s Make-up and Hair Stylist Union local, “They loused him up so badly that a Republican couldn’t 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 don’t have any free ones. The debates will make Kennedy President.”
“That son-of-a-bitch,” snapped Nixon’s running-mate Henry Cabot Lodge, when the debate ended, “just lost us the election!”
LBJ didn’t want to debate in 1964, and Congress, heeding his wishes, failed to lift the FCC’s Equal Time Rule. Richard Nixon didn’t 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 Ford’s missteps regarding Soviet domination of Eastern Europe or Michael Dukakis’ robotic response to CNN reporter Bernard Shaw’s query regarding crime-and-punishment. Or Ronald Reagan sequentially skewering George H. W. Bush (“I’m 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 opponent’s 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, 1960’s 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.