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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