The First Nixon-Kennedy Debate

    With the prospect of debates among British party leaders, an article in The Australian opines:

    Appearances do not only matter in television debating: they are, in some ways, the only things that matter. The first TV debate in 1960 pitted a sweaty, unshaven Richard Nixon recovering from flu, against a tanned, youthful John F. Kennedy who had spent much of the previous week on the golf course. Those who heard the debate on radio reckoned Nixon the winner. But more than 80 million Americans watched it on television, and in that medium the victor was clear. It was not so much a measure of JFK’s abilities as a resounding tribute to the power of television.

    Some corrections are in order.  RN was not recovering from the flu, but from an infected knee.  He was clean-shaven, though his complexion tended to give the impression of a five o’clock shadow.   While the recently-hospitalized RN did not look his best, he hardly had the death’s-door appearance of legend.  (When I show video of the debate to students, they wonder what the big deal was about.)  JFK was youthful, but so was RN, who was only four years older.  One poll did show that radio listeners scored Nixon as the winner, but that result has limited significance, since those who listened on radio were demographically very different from those who watched on TV.  The radio audience was predisposed to support RN to begin with.  To the extent that the first debate did affect the election, substance counted more than cosmetics. Trying to shake his attack-dog image, RN erred by being too deferential and defensive.

    Even the leading lines of the article are misleading:  “On October 15, 1992, the first president Bush glanced at his watch, and lost the presidential election. At almost the same moment, Bill Clinton took three paces forward, and won it. 2 election.”   No, Bush’s watch glances looked bad but did not cost him the election.  Clinton was leading Bush before the debates.  Afterward, in fact, his lead narrowed.



            ‘Twas the night before Christmas: this photograph of PN (holding Checkers), six-year-old Tricia, four-year-old Julie, and the thirty-eight year old Vice President- Elect was actually taken on 20 December at their home in Washington.

              Merry Christmas


                If you are watching your mail box or front door for our cards and gifts this year, we respectfully request that you enjoy the realization that a donation has been made, in lieu of our annual cards, to the Docent Guild at the Richard Nixon Presidential Foundation. They are an amazing, dedicated and knowledgeable group of volunteers that make the RN Library and Birthplace a very special place.

                and all the

                It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas, all around Coyote Base. We’ve decorated our tree, it’s red white and blue. Full of flags, some that I quilted, and patriotic ornaments all about the Richard Nixon Library and Birthplace. The “Birthplace Ornament” holds a special place of honor.

                Tricia Nixon Cox, her husband Ed and son Christoper sent us, Christmas at the White House by Jennifer B. Pickens. It’s a beautiful coffee table book with reflections from the Kennedy to the Bush 43 White House Christmases. Mrs. Nixon adored Christmas and was known for the beautiful decorations during the Christmases she was in the White House.

                Writing in 1969, a Time magazine reporter observed: “Few presidential couples . . . have gone at the Christmastime merrymaking with quite the gusto of Richard and Pat Nixon. For the holidays they have peopled the place with choirs, Bob Hope, the Apollo 12 astronauts and more than 6,000 other Americans, renowned and unknown.”

                The Walker family proudly numbered 5 unknowns among the 6,000 invited guests. In anticipation of this memorable party, I made our three little girls, then 8,7,and 6, blue velvet dresses with white, lace trimmed collars. Their outfits were complemented by white tights and brand new, shiny maryjane patent leather shoes. When we were about ready to drive to the White House, they looked so adorable, that Ron insisted they have their pictures taken outside with the pine trees as a festive backdrop. During the process of posing, Marja took time out to climb an inviting tree limb, cut herself, and then proceeded to bleed all over her white collar. So much for a motherly vision of precious, angelic little girls going to a White House Christmas party.

                Mrs. Nixon is credited with introducing more holiday customs than any of the first ladies preceding her. In 1969 she started the holiday tradition of candlelight evening tours. She said she wanted sightseers to see the mansions beautiful public rooms, “so filled with history, and now aglow with the magic and spirit of Christmas.” White House candlelight tours are still very popular. Another anticipated event is the unveiling of the gingerbread house in the State Dining Room. The White House chef creates a new, completely edible one each year.

                Another of Mrs. Nixon’s holiday innovations was to showcase Christmas cards and artifacts from past presidencies. A 1866 edition of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” that President Franklin Roosevelt always read aloud to his family on Christmas eve. Another was a small fire engine that President Hoover gave to his secretary’s son, as a memento of a fire in the West Wing the year before. Another artifact on display was a large dollhouse, made for ten year old Fanny Hays, daughter of President Rutherford Hays, by the White House carpenter in 1877. Mrs. Nixon liked it so much that it was on display all year and today it can be seen at the Hays Presidential Center.

                In 1971 it was Mrs. Nixon’s request that disabled workers be given the opportunity to make the Christmas ornaments. “State balls” were made for each of the 50 states. First ladies have continued the tradition of the state balls, and Laura Bush took the tradition a wonderful step further, by highlighting each of our National Parks as part of the state balls collection. Even in years when the state balls were left packed away, the First Lady will often commission new ornaments to represent all fifty states, continuing the tradition inspired by Mrs. Nixon. In 1971 she told an interviewer, “I suppose of all the places we’ve spent Christmas, the White House must be our favorite.”

                Thank you Tricia, Ed and Christoper for a thoughtful and beautiful gift.

                When President Nixon appointed Ron to be the Eighth Director of the National Park Service, I made a special request. It had bothered me to see that the National Christmas Tree on the mall was one that was cut down and trucked to Washington each year. I thought it would be a grand idea to plant one on the mall. A permanent National Christmas tree. Secretary of the Interior, Rogers C. B. Morton thought it was such a good idea that he took full credit for the innovation. I’m OK with that, because our permanent National Christmas Tree came to be. I’m proud of “my beautiful Christmas tree” on the National mall and delight in watching the “Pageant of Peace” tree lighting ceremony each year on live television. The Walker family attended the event one year when Ron was Director. It was a freezing, but festive ceremony. Another year I was on hand when First Lady Barbara Bush rode a cherry picker basket to put the finishing decorations on the top of the tree. One great and gutsy girl, that “Bar.”

                In 1972, Mrs. Nixon chose the theme “Nature’s Bounty” and the White House decorations were done in Della Robbia style. She told reporters that she had always liked Della Robbia wreaths, in which real fruits are mixed with greenery and pine cones, and for years had given them to friends as Christmas gifts. My mother did the very same thing. We always had Della Robbia wreaths in our home at Christmas, and we gave them as gifts, perhaps it was originally a California thing.

                As 2009 comes to an end, we pray for our country. We pray for the current President and his family as they prepare for their first White House Christmas. Carved in the mantel of the State Dining Room fireplace, surely decked in festive holiday tradition as I write this, is the inscription written by John Adams: “I pray Heaven to Bestow the Best of Blessings on THIS HOUSE and on All that shall hereafter Inhabit it. May none but honest and Wise Men rule under this roof.”

                Let us all add an AMEN to the prayer of President John Adams.

                  Time's Man (Whoops, Person) Of All Time

                    Tonight, Diane Sawyer, former aide in the Nixon White House who also was an editorial assistant for RN: The Memoirs of Richard Nixon, made her debut as anchor of ABC’s World News Tonight. She did not get around to mentioning her old boss.

                    But over at NBC Nightly News, Brian Williams found some time for the thirty-seventh President. He reported on a blog called Teqnolog, which this weekend examined the thousands of images at Time magazine’s site to determine whose face had appeared on that venerable newsmagazine’s cover more often than any other.

                    The winner was not a complete surprise. I recall reading in Time once or twice in the last fifteen years that Richard Nixon had been on the cover more often than anyone else. But Technoloq did a breakdown on the 15 others who had appeared on the cover ten times or more. Here they are:

                    RN – 48 covers
                    Ronald Reagan – 45
                    Bill Clinton – 33
                    George W. Bush – 31
                    Jimmy Carter – 27
                    Barack Obama – 24
                    Gerald R. Ford – 20
                    Lyndon B. Johnson – 19
                    George H.W. Bush – 18
                    Dwight D. Eisenhower – 18
                    Hillary Clinton – 16
                    John F. Kennedy – 14
                    Saddam Hussein – 12
                    Franklin D. Roosevelt – 11
                    Al Gore – 10
                    John McCain – 10

                    It should be mentioned that these figures include covers in which the sixteen mentioned appear with other people, such as Henry Kissinger, or Leonid Brezhnev, or each other. (In fact, in 1976 Reagan, Carter and Ford were on the same cover.) In Nixon’s case, he appeared by himself on 24 of his 48 covers, while FDR and Hussein were solo on almost all of their covers.

                    It may not be much of a surprise that the Secretary of State was the only woman on this list (though the former Governor of Alaska may catch up by 2012), but to have Saddam Hussein appear on more covers than, say, Stalin or Castro or Gorbachev or even Churchill is somewhat startling.

                    The blog pointed out that President Obama, in less than two years, or about 100 weeks, since he scored his first Time cover, has risen to sixth place on this list, while it took RN until the early Seventies, nearly two decades after his first appearance, to get to 24 covers. Teqnolog remarked that at this pace, it would take Obama only another two years to surpass RN, by which time he’d still be in his first term, and that if he were re-elected and featured as frequently as he is now, he could perhaps have his face on as many as 150 covers.

                    And even if the President failed to be re-elected, he’d still stand a good chance of building on such a number – FDR, JFK, Reagan, and of course RN were on the cover more than once after leaving office.


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