TV Debate Makes JFK Superstar, Nixon a Loser

Politics forever changed on 50th anniversary of the first presidential debate.

ByABC News
September 21, 2010, 9:12 PM

Sept. 25, 2010— -- Just an hour before one of the biggest events in modern politics -- the first nationally televised presidential debate in American history – the Democratic candidate was sound asleep.

It was Sept. 26, 1960. Earlier in the day, Sen. John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts had been sunning himself on the rooftop of Chicago's Hilton tower as aides quizzed him with note cards.

But as his entourage was ready to head to the studio for the much anticipated face-off with Republican Vice President Richard M. Nixon, Kennedy still hadn't appeared.

"Everyone said he was nervous and worried, but he decided the best thing to do was to take a nap," said Ted Sorensen, now 82, who was Kennedy's principal policy and speech adviser and would later serve as the president's special counsel.

"We were supposed to be at the studio an hour ahead of broadcast time and I was delegated to wake him up," he said. "I was concerned, but when I opened the door to the bedroom suite, there he was sound asleep covered in blue cards."

Kennedy had every reason to be anxious about the first of the four national debates.

Voters knew little about the young senator, beyond the fact that he was a Roman Catholic. Nixon, on the other hand, was well-known: a two-term sitting vice president, whose previous national television experience included his now-infamous 1952 Checkers speech and what was dubbed the Kitchen Debate with Soviet Premier Nikita Krushchev.

The Great Debates would change all that. The televised event would give a boost to Kennedy's star power and some say would later turn the tide of that election, the closest in American history until 2000. And going forward, television became a powerful instrument that could change political perceptions.

"So much written about the debates was false," said Sorensen. "They say that Kennedy holed up that weekend in his hotel rehearsing his opening statement with a debate coach. He didn't have a debate coach. He never rehearsed out loud any speech in his life except his inaugural address."

Even if Kennedy was outwardly confident, the country was uneasy.

Just three years earlier, the Russians had launched Sputnik, their first space satellite. The communist nation's steel production was outpacing the United States'. A nuclear arms race had begun. At home, unrest over civil rights was heating up.

The two candidates were only four years apart in age, but a generation apart in demeanor and outlook.

"I think Kennedy knew the power of television and he was so unbelievably good-looking and relaxed and casually cool, that it was a perfect medium for him," said Sorensen. "He didn't know Nixon would look and do so badly in the debate. Kennedy knew that he [himself] was very likely going to make it or break it [in the debate.]"

"Frankly, I was surprised Nixon agreed to debate," said Sorensen. "Nixon was experienced and thought he'd walk all over Kennedy. But one thing about our campaign was we were confident we had the best candidate and the best case. He was not afraid of Nixon."

Kennedy, 43, may not have feared Nixon, 47, but he was well aware of what was at stake. Gallup polls at the time showed the race was neck-and-neck. Nixon had been on a surge in the days before the debate and the Kennedy camp was very concerned, according to Sorensen.