TV Debate Makes JFK Superstar, Nixon a Loser

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

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.

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.

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."

"I was a Republican and it was around that time I switched over in my political thinking," said Duthie, 97, who now lives in Hartford, Conn. "I had not liked Kennedy. As most Republicans felt, I was not enamored of him. It was purely a personal thing without any thinking behind it."

But Duthie, a musician, and her husband, a bank vice president, were active in the early peace movement in the 1930s and they liked what Kennedy had to say on war and peace.

One-Third of Nation Watched Great Debate

Regardless of how audiences on radio or television had responded to the event, there was no doubt inside the Kennedy camp who had won.

Right after the debate, Kennedy's excitement over his performance was palpable, according to Sorensen.

Kennedy left the sound stage and went directly to a pay phone.

"The millionaire senator asked me if I'd got any change," he remembers. "I gave him a quarter and he dialed his father. I stepped back a few respectful paces and could see a big smile lighting up the senator's face."

The next day in a motorcade in Ohio, the so-called leapers -- women who jumped over the crowds to see the candidate -- were out in full force, according to Sorensen.

"I don't think there's been anything as important as the debate of 1960," he said. "It gave the American people a pretty good idea of what Kennedy was really like. He was a Catholic, but he didn't wear horns. He also didn't look like a priest, and that was very important to see him as he really was and not let the words, too young and inexperienced, and Catholic cloud their vision.

"It was a high moment in democracy --- a time when the American people knew more about their candidates that they had ever known before."

Another presidential debate wasn't held until 1976. Battle scarred from his 1960 performance, Nixon refused to debate again in his successful bids for the presidency in 1968 and 1972.

The first of the Nixon-Kennedy debates was one of the most watched programs in American history, drawing 66 million viewers, or more than a third of the entire population at the time of 179 million. By comparison, the 2008 debate between Republican John McCain and Democrat Barack Obama drew only 52 million viewers, although the country had swelled to 300 million.

"Television had made its entrance full-time into the political landscape," said newsman Vanocur. "Television was the dominating force."

ABC News reporter Lisa Chinn and information specialist Nicholas Tucker contributed to this report

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