TV Debate Makes JFK Superstar, Nixon a Loser


Quiz show scandals in the 1950s -- producers feeding questions to contestants to rig the games -- had tarnishd the reputation of television. Broadcasters, sensing a televised debate might help restore their image, embraced the idea. To get around the equal time provision, broadcasters argued that the debate was a news program. Congress agreed, and approved an exemption from the provision, which was later repealed.

"It was to be an experiment," said Minow, who later served on the Commission for Presidential Debates and worked with the League of Women Voters.

Minow, who famously called much of television a vast wasteland, said the American political debate has become television at its best.

"Debates are live," he said. "It's not edited and candidates are not really in control. It's now spread all over the world, what we have done here."

Nixon and Kennedy Were Polar Opposites in Style, Substance

But that first 1960 debate -- in the days before spin meisters and media strategists -- gave Americans a more personal and visual taste of the candidates. And what television revealed was two men who were polar opposites in substance and in style.

Kennedy opened the debate with a bold vision for the future: equal rights for all and a competitive nation.

Nixon, on the other hand, on the advice of his running mate Henry Cabot Lodge, took a conciliatory approach, agreeing with Kennedy -- a fatal mistake, say historians.

On camera, Nixon could be seen sweating profusely, his eyes darting nervously, but Kennedy appeared relaxed, smiling.

Nixon took a classical debate approach and looked only at Kennedy, making the Republican seem distant to television audiences. Kennedy spoke directly to the camera and to the American people.

But former NBC political correspondent Sander Vanocur, one of the four questioners on the debate panel, saw little of Nixon's sweating and stuttering that television audiences reported.

"We did not see the debate as the rest of the country saw it," said Vanocur, now 82, who lives in Santa Barbara, Calif. "Those who heard it on the radio thought Nixon had won. In the studio, the four of us were seated on a platform, and we looked at the two candidates with our naked eyes."

When the debate was over, the studio just cleared out, he said. "They shook hands and left the platform. Those of us sitting there didn't talk about it afterward."

Vanocur did not realize Kennedy was the victor until the next day when he called the candidate's press secretary, Kenny O'Donnell, who told him that after the debate, Ohio governor Frank Lausche, a conservative, had thrown his support behind Kennedy.

Even the future first lady seemed to grasp the importance of the medium more than Nixon's wife, Pat, who stayed home alone in Washington, unavailable to reporters.

Jacqueline Kennedy, nearly seven months pregnant with John Jr., held a viewing party for the debate at the Kennedy home in Hyannisport, Mass., and allowed journalists to attend. When Nixon made a gaffe about farm policy, Jackie said nothing, but produced a small Mona Lisa-type smile, according to those who were there.

Ordinary Americans were also swayed by the Kennedy magic in the aftermath of the debates.

Frances Duthie, who watched the debate on a neighbor's television set, said families had been so worried about the atomic bomb that they turned their Philadelphia lights out at night, "in case there was some kind of incoming scare."

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