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The First Kennedy-Nixon Debate: Are We Better Off than 50 Years Ago?

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Fifty years ago in Chicago, on Sept. 26, 1960, 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.
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.
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.
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?"
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, 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.
During the third 1960 debate, a reporter asked Kennedy if he felt obligated to apologize for the 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 speaking manner. 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 a man 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."
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."
The 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.
The golden anniversary of the first Kennedy-Nixon confrontation will inevitably prompt the Sunday shows to run highlight reels of nostalgic footage from presidential debates. There will inevitably be a self-congratulatory air to the entire ritual. But 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. So as much as it sounds like heresy -- and, readers, you are free to shout, "There you go again" -- 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 50 years ago.

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George & Nancy

I was only 8 when this went on. I could have cared less about who became president. I do remember hearing on the closed circuit TV at school that Kennedy was shot. I watched in absolute terror the workings of our govt soon thereafter. I now believe that kennedy was killed by our own govt. I am usually not a conspirarist theorist, but this one I believe.

September 26 2010 at 7:12 PM Report abuse -2 rate up rate down Reply
skinnycat

I was 20 years old when these debates occurred. Watching this debate, my classmates in college and I were enthralled with the energetic and intelligent senator from Mass. He had quiet dignity with an underlying wit and uncanny ability to come across as a man who truly cared about his country and the citizens within it. We were right. Naming his brother, Robert, was a brilliant move. They had each other to bounce things off of and come up with solutions. Naming Johnson as Vice President was not in anyone's best interest except to get the votes from the south and south west. He would not have remained in the second Kennedy administration. I think we all have a pretty good idea who(plural) really killed the Kennedy brothers. That was the one of the major beginnings of the downfall of this country.

September 26 2010 at 5:33 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
ptleftie

Televised debates are fine; my problem is that these days so many candidates are involved IN them, leaving very little time for some of them to say anything.

September 26 2010 at 5:30 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Ronnie!

No were not better off for it. It was the begining of form is better than substance. Kennedy was young debonair - Nixon looked like death warmed over. Most observers at the time agree Nixon won the debate. But Jack and Jackie made all the magazine covers.

September 26 2010 at 5:21 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply
dc walker

Yes we were better off. I could walk five blocks to school and play outside without any worry of the sordid people roaming the country today. You could leave your home and car unlocked, or leave the window down on a hot day and no one bothered your property. You could sleep out on the beach at night without regulations telling you, no. Prices were less: gas .20 a gallon, milk, $1.00, bread, .25 for a loaf of bread before congress went global and sent our jobs out of the US by not protecting the playing field. We could go out for a walk after dinner and no one bothered you. No one was afraid to hitchhike back. Cuba and the Russian nukes? they wouldn't have challenged Nixon. Kennedy and Johnson took us to Vietnam over ideology when Ho Chi Minh himself helped American pilots during WW2, educated himself in the US, asked for our help against the French and instead of sitting down talking with him 58,000 Americans died and 1 and a half million Vietnamese, for what?

September 26 2010 at 1:56 PM Report abuse +7 rate up rate down Reply
3 replies to dc walker's comment
vallesula

One thing is for sure, on the night of that debate, the media discovered they had stumbled on a gold mine, and ever since, they've been making money hands over fist. Sad thing is, because every passing election cost's more thn the one before, corruptions ( like in buying off politicians) and special interests groups have become a part of the equation .

September 26 2010 at 1:11 PM Report abuse +7 rate up rate down Reply
burtonjp

We as voting citizens have lost our sense of country. We have become a nation of greedy self-interest groups. We vote for the buck in our pocket whether we earned it or not. Politicians are no longer statesmen. For the most part they are conive are devious, and lie by omission. Our political campaigns have become marketing circuses. The media has no sense of propriety. We have become a nation of multi-culturalism where it is more improtant to be SomethingAmerican rather than just American. We don't protect our boundaries. We have been in a leadership void for decades for the most part where big business rules politics. It is a felony to lie to the government but if policticians lie to us its politics. I could go on but to answer the question are we better off today than 50 years ago. No! The above reasons are part of why we are losing the family as the central part of our life. It is maybe the most tragic failing of all. As a side note I would have gladly given up going to the moon 50 years ago in place of putting our destiny at the hands of big oil especially big oil in the near east. Burton Patrick Pittsburgh

September 26 2010 at 1:04 PM Report abuse +6 rate up rate down Reply
ash5114221

Kennedy in a press conference,took the entire blame for the Bay of Pigs fiasco.After that,his popularity took off. Compared to Bush junior,I dont remember any mistakes I made and the current president who seems to pass the buck in the blame department,yes bring those days back.

September 26 2010 at 12:16 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
THOM

I lived through all of this kiddies. I watched the debates. Kennedy was more prepared, had drilled in the issues while 'Tricky Dick' palyed his usual illusive politician game. It made him look exactly like what he was, a BAD politician and leader...If we would have learned then, he wouldn't have extended the Vietnam War so I could be wounded in it and also WOUND the country in a way that we still have not completely recovered from its aftermath. On the other hand, though he was not perfect, Kennedy DID save us from a nuclear war and if he would have lived we would have NEVER made the horrible mistake of Vietnam that caused over 58,000 nineteen year old men their lives [19 was the average folks], as I said I should know I barely missed being added to that number. By the way, that's the main reason he was murdered whether you believe it or not. The debates did all that and something live debates have never done before, showed presidential candidates under tremendous pressure answering questions live. You know like they would do or are supposed to do under actual pressured issues? From my view they were the demonstration that our digital age makes it too easy to cover the flaws of men running for office...something they could not do then and SHOULD NOT be doing now.

September 26 2010 at 11:26 AM Report abuse -5 rate up rate down Reply
Celia

My dear Walter, I must disagree with your last statement: "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 50 years ago." I was a college coed in a Freshman debate class when the assignment was given to the class of writing a critique of this television debate. There was a collective sigh, if not groan, from the class. A television political debate was certainly NOT in my Freshman coed brain at this time in my life. I would never have chosen to sit and critique a boring, black and white political debate with two "old" men I knew nothing about. I was ignorant of everything political. However, I was a good student and was immeditately intrigued as a tackled the assignment...it was so clear-cut. I remember the pallor of Nixon and the movie star tan of Kennedy. The gaping collar and the sagging jaw of Nixon were distracting. One was in his prime and the other seemed seedy, uptight and a bit "shifty." Content and presentation were as glaringly different, even to me. I got an "A" on the critique and was commended on giving full contrast to the speaking styles and appearance and content of the two men's presentations. I remember it as though it were yesterday...I became interested in politics from that one event. A teacher with vision made that assignment. I am thankful that one telecast 50 years ago awakened my interest and zeal to know more...

September 26 2010 at 10:41 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

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