TV Debate Makes JFK Superstar, Nixon a Loser


VP Richard Nixon Sick and Refused to Rehearse for Debate

Events surrounding the debate turned ominous for Nixon from the start. Still recovering from a staph infection after being hospitalized for 12 days for a knee operation, Nixon had just put in a full day of campaigning.

Afterwards, he locked himself in his hotel room, and advisers didn't know what he did while he was there, according to historian W.J. Rorabaugh, author of "The Real Making of the President: Kennedy, Nixon, and the 1960 Election."

Nixon refused to rehearse, preferring his briefing books. According to Rorabaugh, it would prove to be a strategic mistake.

The candidates arrived 15 minutes apart at CBS TV offices -- a former ice skating rink -- in downtown Chicago. When Nixon's Buick pulled up, he banged his injured knee on the car door as he was getting out.

Oliver Treyz, the president of ABC News at the time, recounted the story, saying Nixon "turned white."

Kennedy was refreshed, but Nixon was exhausted. He had lost 20 pounds and his shirt collar was too big.

CBS producer Don Hewitt, who later created "60 Minutes," offered both candidates the help of the network's top make-up artist from New York. Kennedy turned it down and Nixon quickly declined as well, reportedly because he did not want to look unmanly.

That would also be a serious blunder, according Alan Schroeder in his 2009 book, "Presidential Debates."

Kennedy attended a pre-production meeting with Hewitt but Nixon declined that too. The pallid Republican candidate also resisted advice from his aides to sit under a sun lamp to improve his color.

In the hours before the debate Nixon's handlers insisted the set's backdrop be repainted to contrast better with the candidate's shirt, but each time, the background grew lighter. Also, worried about his characteristic five-o'clock shadow, they applied Lazy Shave, a product that would later melt under the hot lights.

Kennedy, on the other hand, had worn a dark suit. He sent campaign aide Dave Powers back to the hotel to grab a blue shirt and a longer pair of socks so his skin would not be exposed while seated.

Once the debate began, the contrast between the candidates became apparent.

Though color television had been around since 1953, few Americans owned color sets. The debate was broadcast in black and white, using a sharper technology for the event. The harsh cameras revealed a confident, sun-tanned and eloquent Kennedy, but an anxious, pale and subdued Nixon.

The concept of presidential debates was the brainchild of Adlai Stevenson, the brilliant, but failed Democratic presidential candidate in 1952 and 1956, according to his former law partner Newton Minow, author of the 2008 book, "Inside the Presidential Debates," who later went on to head the Federal Communications Commission.

In 1960, the federal Communications Act required that all candidates in a political race be entitled to equal time on the air, and therefore debate among myriad candidates would have been unwieldy, according to Minow, now 84 and a lawyer with the Chicago firm Sidley Austin.

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