Locked in a tight race for the presidency, the two met in Chicago for the first-ever televised presidential debate. The event drew a record audience and officially ushered in the era of media-dominated politics. It was also one of the key events that helped Kennedy defeat Nixon seven weeks later in November.
To truly understand the election of 1960 and the significance of the Nixon-Kennedy debate, one almost needs to forget a number of key events that happened in the years after 1960. One has to set aside, for the moment, John F. Kennedy’s tragic assassination and subsequent aura of quasi-sainthood to remember that in 1960 he was the underdog. Similarly, one needs to see Richard M. Nixon not as the disgraced president forced from office in the Watergate scandal, but rather as a seasoned frontrunner who served two terms as Eisenhower’s vice president. Finally, one must try to imagine an age when television was as new and untested as the Internet.
This last point is crucial. The decade preceding the 1960 debate witnessed the arrival of the television in the American home. In 1950, only 11 percent of American families owned a TV. Ten years later, fully 88 percent owned one. Not surprisingly, with the TV now ubiquitous, there was in 1960 growing interest among the major networks to experiment with increased political coverage. Inevitably, the idea of a head-to-head presidential debate — a standard ritual in most elections for lesser office for well over a century — came to the fore.
Both nominees that year, Republican Nixon and Democrat Kennedy welcomed the idea. The Nixon team, supremely confident in their man’s proven skill at political debate and TV experience, wanted only one debate. They believed the veteran Nixon would demolish Kennedy in one evening and that additional debates would gain him nothing. When Kennedy’s team asked for five debates, the Nixon team took it as a sign of weakness. Kennedy, they thought, must be desperate for an opportunity to raise his stature and dispel his image as a candidate too young and inexperienced to be president. Nonetheless, Kennedy’s team managed to secure a commitment to four televised debates, beginning with the first on Sept. 26, followed by ones on Oct. 7, Oct. 13, and Oct. 21.
For Nixon, nothing seemed to go right in the weeks leading up to the debate. He injured his knee and was forced to spend 10 precious days away from the campaign in the hospital. To make up for lost time, Nixon ignored the advice of his doctors and resumed campaigning at a breakneck pace. He covered a lot of ground, but it took a lot out of him physically. He showed up in Chicago late Sunday night before the Monday debate looking exhausted from his marathon campaign schedule. He’d lost 25 pounds since he injured his knee and it showed in the way his shirt collar hung loose at the neck. Dark circles appeared under his eyes and his face was pale and sickly.
Adding to his woes, Nixon rejected the advice of his handlers to let them help him to prepare for the debate. Instead, he cut off all contact with them and went into brooding isolation with his wife (a good Irish American named Patricia Ryan) in their hotel room.
By contrast, Kennedy and his team staged hours of mock debate and tutoring on key points of fact. Kennedy had also arrived in Chicago on Saturday, allowing himself two full days to rest and orient himself. Kennedy’s team also went over every detail of the studio and its lighting to make sure their candidate looked his best. Their decision to outfit him in a dark gray suit — perfect, as it turned out, given the studio’s lighting and background — was one of many small details that contributed to a winning night for Kennedy.
Nixon’s bad luck and poor decision making followed him right onto the set. In the parking lot outside the studio, he banged his injured knee as he exited his car causing him tremendous pain. He also wore a light gray suit, which when set against the studio’s light gray walls detracted from his appearance on TV. Most important, Nixon refused to wear any makeup to cover his five o’clock shadow. Only after an aide pleaded with him did he agree to apply a thin layer of Lazy Shave powder that stood no chance under the bright lights of the set.
At 8:30 p.m. CBS announced to its viewers that the regularly scheduled program — Andy Griffith — would not be shown to allow for the broadcast of the first ever televised presidential debate. A moment later, Kennedy, Nixon, and moderator Howard K. Smith appeared on the screen and the historic debate began. Both candidates made eight-minute opening statements and then answered questions posed by a panel of four journalists.
In terms of the substance of their remarks, Kennedy and Nixon acquitted themselves well. Neither faltered under the questioning and no one scored any knockout punches. When polled afterward, those who listened on radio gave Nixon the edge. But those who watched on television — an astounding 70 million — tabbed Kennedy as the winner. The reason why is as simple as it is significant: Kennedy possessed a made-for-television charisma. Throughout the debate he looked calm, confident, and in command of himself. Most important, he delivered his remarks not to Nixon or the journalists who posed the questions, but rather to the TV audience. In so doing he conveyed intangible qualities such as maturity (essential for a young candidate of 43) and vision, rather than mere facts.
By contrast, Nixon looked nervous and disheveled. He never smiled and several times appeared to glare at Kennedy and the panel of questioners. Without any make-up on, he looked as though he hadn’t shaved. Worse, he ignored the TV audience and focused on Kennedy. It was a smart strategy for a college-style debate where participants are judged by the accuracy of their argument and ability to expose an opponent’s inconsistencies. But it played poorly before a TV audience that cared as much about style and persona as it did about facts and minute policy differences.
Nixon recovered from this poor start to perform better in the three subsequent debates (in part because he agreed to wear make-up), but the damage had been done. The benefits of Kennedy’s superb performance became obvious almost immediately. Because expectations were so low, his strong showing boosted his standing among undecided voters who now viewed him as every bit as mature and experienced as Nixon. Polls showed Kennedy closing the gap between himself and Nixon and crowds along the campaign trail grew noticeably larger.
In November, Kennedy won by one of the slimmest margins in U.S. history, 49.9 percent to Nixon’s 49.6, or a margin of just 112,000 votes out of 69 million cast. Subsequent surveys of voters all pointed in varying degrees to the same conclusion: the debates had tipped the balance in Kennedy’s favor. Dr. Elmo Roper’s poll, for example, found that 57 percent of voters said the debates had influenced their vote and an additional 6 percent said it was the key factor in their decision. Of the latter, 72 percent (or nearly three million) voted for Kennedy — no small matter given the candidate’s razor this margin of victory.
In the coming decades, experts would argue over the significance of the debates in determining the election’s final outcome. But for Kennedy and his team, there was never any question that the election of 1960 had its decisive turn that historic evening in Chicago. Nixon certainly thought so, for when he ran again in 1968 and ’72, he refused to debate his challengers.
HIBERNIAN HISTORY WEEK
Oct. 1, 1910: A bomb explodes at the Los Angeles Times, killing 21. Labor radicals James and Joseph McNamara are later convicted of the crime.
Sept. 29, 1925: Col. Billy Mitchell of U.S. Army testifies before Congress and advocates separate aviation branch. He is later court martialed for these and other remarks made to the press critical of the Army handling of aviation.
Sept. 30, 1900: Arthur Griffin establishes the Cumann na nGaedheal, or “Party of the Irish.”
Sept. 27, 1837: Labor priest Father Edward McGlynn born in New York City.
Sept. 28, 1902: Television show host Ed Sullivan born in New York City.
Sept. 29, 1908: Actress Greer Garson born in County Down.