Kennedy v. Nixon Televised Debate Forever Changes Politics
The presidential campaign of 1960 featured the Republican candidate Richard M. Nixon (a veteran politician and the incumbent vice president) versus the Democratic candidate John F. Kennedy—a youthful, relatively unknown senator from Massachusetts. Much of the campaign was typical, with enthusiastic crowds attending both candidate’s speeches and the press paying careful attention. Then on Sept. 26, 1960, something very atypical—in fact, unprecedented—happened, and political campaigning would never again be the same: the two candidates participated in the first-ever televised presidential debate.
Polls showed Nixon held a slight lead over Kennedy before the televised debate, but all that changed in one short hour. Kennedy prepared extensively and rested well before the debate, and looked great on television—his handsome face enhanced by a deep tan. His demeanor throughout the debate was calm and confident; he seemed very much in control and quite presidential. He also had a knack for staring straight into the television cameras when he gave his answers, giving viewers the impression he was talking directly to them—unlike Nixon, who gave his answers to the panel of journalists asking the questions.
Nixon, on the other hand, was a mess. He had recently been hospitalized for two weeks because an injured knee had become infected, and he was pale, underweight and looked ill. To make matters worse, Nixon did not grasp the intricacies of this new political medium—televised debates—and refused any makeup. Consequently, the bright studio lights glared off his face, his “five o’clock shadow” whiskers showed up starkly on viewers’ black-and-white television sets, and perspiration dripped down his face and shone on his chin.
Nixon was a solid debater and made his points well—interestingly, polls of people who listened to the debate on radio thought Nixon had won. But the majority of those who watched the debate on television—and the audience was tremendous, estimated at over 70 million viewers—were convinced Kennedy had triumphed, just because he looked so confident and winning while Nixon looked apprehensive and sickly.
Nixon learned his lesson; there were three more televised debates, and he put on weight and wore makeup at those events to make a better visual impression. But the harm had been done; the audiences for the three subsequent debates were smaller than the initial debate, when Kennedy had made the first—and better—impression. He went on to defeat Nixon in an extremely close vote on November 8, beating his rival by only one tenth of one percentage point in the national popular vote.
The following six newspaper articles are about that first televised presidential debate. These copyrighted articles were published by the Seattle Daily Times (Seattle, Washington) on Sept. 27, 1960:
Candidates, ‘On Their Own,’ Nervous during TV ‘Debate’
By Everett R. Irwin
United Press International
Chicago, Sept. 27.—There were no cheering thousands to goad John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon to the heights of political oratory last night.
Instead, they heard only the inquiring voices of a television panel, the occasional click of a camera lens, the squeak of a tripod.
No friendly faces were in sight—only three blinking TV cameras, two long-armed microphone booms, the shadowy forms of the crews that operated them and, overhead, great banks of brilliant lights.
Advisers Stay Outside
Outside the soundproof doors of the cavernous studio, Nixon and Kennedy left their entourage of advisers—the highest-powered campaign organizations ever assembled by White House aspirants. Their video experts were sealed up in the control room nearly 60 feet distant, too far away to signal advice.
There were not even teleprompters to turn to for a catchy phrase. Where teleprompters usually stand, there were green, amber and red “traffic signals” to lead them through their exchange with signals reading: “One minute,” “30 seconds” and “cut.”
The four radio-TV newsmen who questioned the candidates sat in chairs on the floor level near the dais.
Questions were not submitted in advance and there were no prepared texts.
For the first time in their campaigns, Nixon and Kennedy were strictly on their own—and the loneliness and pressure were reflected in their nervousness and their grave demeanor.
‘Stand Up, Jack!’
Kennedy goofed once.
The Massachusetts senator was so eager to begin his first rebuttal to a Nixon point that he forgot to stand up to his lectern and microphone and began talking from his chair. Cameramen scrambled to focus on Kennedy.
Nixon nervously leaned forward and made a “Stand up, Jack” gesture. The moderator, Howard K. Smith, chief Washington correspondent of the Columbia Broadcasting System, also signaled to Kennedy and the Democratic nominee leaped to his feet and stepped up to the microphone.
Nixon repeatedly wet his lips and dabbed at his mouth with his handkerchief when he was off camera. His left hand clamped down hard on the slender arm of the modern, saddle-tan chair in which he sat, while Kennedy delivered his opening remarks. Occasionally Nixon flexed his left knee.
Nixon Stamps Foot
When the vice president stood at the lectern, he stamped his left foot from time to time as if to drive home a point.
Kennedy chopped the air with his right hand—a characteristic gesture—to emphasize his points. When he felt Stuart Novins, C.B.S. correspondent, had misquoted him about the possibility of debt reduction, the Democratic candidate temporarily forgot the on-camera and directed his retort right back at the panelist.
Kennedy scribbled a few notes as Nixon gave his eight-minute opening speech and again as the vice president summed up his ideas. Nixon gazed sternly at the camera as his opponent summed up.
Both Show Respect
Once in the debate, a light smile flitted across Kennedy’s face. But both candidates showed complete outward respect for the other. There were no exasperated gasps of disagreement, no smirks, hardly a raised eyebrow.
In their loneliness, the rivals greeted each other like long-lost friends before the telecast, exchanging pleasantries and shaking hands four times for still cameramen.
When it was all over they shook hands twice again.
“The time went awfully fast,” Nixon said.
Kennedy wiped his brow and nodded.
Debate Foes Wind Up in Agreement on One Thing
By Arthur Edson
Associated Press Staff Writer
Chicago, Sept. 27.—However much Vice President Richard M. Nixon and Senator John F. Kennedy may have disagreed during their great debate last night, they wound up in agreement on one thing:
They both thought their appearance was a good thing for the country and, possibly, for themselves.
As soon as the debate was finished, reporters asked the two candidates how it went.
“Very good,” Nixon said. “Very sharp exchanges.”
Kennedy nodded and said: “Very useful.”
Later, Nixon amplified his remarks a little by saying:
“Very useful. I hope the exchange of views stimulates interest in this campaign although three minutes isn’t very long to develop a point of view.
“But it gives the American people a chance to see something besides Doby Gillis (a TV situation comedy) or something like that.”
Kennedy just nodded.
Both candidates seemed moderately assured once the program began, but this was a decided contrast to their actions during the warm-up periods.
Both seemed exceptionally nervous then.
Both Grim in Debate
During the debate, neither candidate smiled more than a couple of times. And usually the expression each wore could be summed up in a word: Grim.
Nixon was first for his warm-up sessions, and also first back in the studio for the program itself.
Kennedy arrived just barely before the debate began.
Kennedy went to bat first, [and] seemed relaxed a trifle as he went through his opening remarks. But Nixon sat in a fixed position—one hand on his chair and one in his lap.
When it was Nixon’s turn to speak, Kennedy took a few notes. But most of the time he sat listening intently with folded hands.
Throughout the time Nixon stood before the microphone he kept his left knee bent slightly.
That is the knee he injured severely enough that he was kept in a Washington hospital for a couple of weeks. Whether it was bothering him last night, no one could say.
The vice president also bumped his right knee as he got out of his car in front of the studio tonight. Aides said it was not serious.
Nixon’s press secretary, Herbert Klein, said Nixon took last night’s bump in good humor, adding:
“He made a joke of it, and said: ‘There goes the other knee.’”
Curiously, the most noticeable bobble was by the network itself.
Near the end of the program, Howard K. Smith, the moderator, was supposed to ask how much time remained for the final summation.
Smith asked and got complete silence. Finally a voice boomed out over a loudspeaker that each had three minutes and 20 seconds left.
Nixon slipped in one punch.
That was when, in discussing assistance to the aged, he said:
“I know what it means to be poor.”
Kennedy, whose father is a millionaire, permitted a slight smile to cross his face.
The big moment—when the two candidates met before the debate—occurred at 7:33 o’clock.
The two contestants for the highest office in the free world shook hands once, and then shook hands three times again for photographers who kept insisting on “just one more!”
Ironically, the meeting almost caused a casualty.
Nixon Bumps Head
Nixon, jumping up to greet his foe, bumped his head on a microphone which was directly over him. He rubbed the bruise ruefully and then advanced to meet Kennedy.
As they approached each other, Kennedy said, “Glad to see you.” The nominees then shook hands.
Nixon said to his rival, “I see you had a big crowd in Cleveland.”
Kennedy smiled and nodded.
The next subject of conversation between the two presidential candidates concerned suntans.
“I suppose you get a tan the same way I do—riding around in convertibles. You know, it’s the wind that burns you, not the sun.”
Kennedy’s comment on this vital question could not be heard.
Kennedy Wins Debate, Say Princetonians
Princeton, N.J., Sept. 27.—A three-man panel from the nation’s oldest undergraduate debating society decided, by a unanimous vote, last night that Senator Kennedy argued better than Vice President Nixon in the candidates’ televised meeting.
The student judges were Howard G. Pontius, 20, of Schenectady, N.Y., president of the American Whig-Cliosophic Society; Donald K. Emmerson, 20, of Lagos, Nigeria, vice president of the society; and Jonathon S. Day, 19, of Houston, Tex., chairman of the panel.
Most Listeners Not Influenced by Debate, A.P. Survey Finds
Washington, Sept. 27.—(A.P.)—A survey of voters in ten major cities indicated today that a majority of those polled were not influenced by last night’s televised debate between Richard M. Nixon and John F. Kennedy.
However, of those who said they were influenced by the unprecedented hour-long program, more leaned toward Kennedy than toward Nixon.
Only a few persons said they actually had switched from one candidate to the other because of the debate.
Names Chosen at Random
The Associated Press survey was conducted this way: A.P. reporters in each of the ten cities selected names at random from the telephone book.
The telephoning was continued until answers were obtained from ten qualified voters who had listened to the debate in each of the ten cities: Chicago, Des Moines, Kansas City, Los Angeles, Seattle, Dallas, Boston, Nashville, New Orleans and New York.
Almost twice as many of those who said they were influenced said Kennedy made a better showing than Nixon. Most of those, however, said they had favored Kennedy previously and were reinforced in their opinion by the debate. Most of those who leaned toward Nixon also previously favored him.
65 Pct. Unchanged
Of the 100 persons questioned, 65 said the debate had not changed their feelings at all.
Of the 35 affected by the debate, two definitely switched from Nixon to Kennedy and 21 said the debate influenced or reinforced a preference for Kennedy.
No one said he had switched from Kennedy to Nixon and 11 said the debate influenced or reinforced a preference for Nixon. One person said he had switched but refused to disclose which candidate now had his allegiance.
Wives of Candidates Enjoy Debate
By Associated Press.
The wives of the two presidential candidates watched their husbands’ televised debate last night and afterward each used words like “brilliant” and “wonderful” to describe her husband’s performance.
Mrs. Kennedy saw the debate on a portable television set in her Hyannis Port, Mass., summer home. She said: “I thought my husband was brilliant.”
Mrs. Nixon and her daughters watched in their Washington, D.C., home. She said of her husband: “He looked wonderful.”
The wife of the vice president added: “It was a treat for me. I don’t get to see my husband on television very often because I’m usually right there.”
Silent on Nixon
Mrs. Kennedy said: “I think the issues were well brought out and the entire nation should profit by the debate.”
Mrs. Kennedy refused to answer a reporter’s question on her reaction to Vice President Nixon’s side of the debate.
Kennedy called his wife from the Chicago TV studio within minutes after the debate ended. “What did you think?” he asked.
“I think you were superb,” she replied.
The 2 1/2-year-old daughter of the Democratic presidential nominee slept soundly in an upstairs bedroom during the historic debate. The only member of the Kennedy family who sat with Mrs. Kennedy was her sister, Mrs. Caroline Radzewill of London.
Before the program began Mrs. Kennedy, who is expecting a second child in December, said, “I am terribly nervous but I don’t know of any reason why I should be. Jack is certain to do well.”
Only once did she smile—and that was when Nixon erred when he was speaking of farm surpluses and made the comment: “If we get rid of the farmer—er, the surpluses.”
The television failed twice and both times Mrs. Kennedy leaped up, once to adjust the sound after it failed while her husband was speaking and again when it flickered as Nixon spoke.
TV Debate Puts Crimp in N.Y. Night Life
New York, Sept. 27.—(U.P.I.)—The first face-to-face television debate between Vice President Nixon and Senator Kennedy had a depressing effect on New York’s night life.
Legitimate theaters reported business was off as much as 20 per cent and movie theaters played to nearly-empty houses.
Restaurants and night clubs also reported a drop in business.
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