When Kennedy overran Nixon


Forty years ago, Sen. John F. Kennedy and Vice President Richard M. Nixon stepped into a Chicago television studio and, over the course of an hour, transformed the way presidential races would be run.

Never before - not on television, and not off it - had the two leading presidential candidates been pitted against each other in the heat of a campaign. The nation had its first true collective glimpse at a poised Kennedy and an uneasy Nixon that night - much as voters will evaluate George W. Bush and Al Gore in the series of debates scheduled to begin Tuesday.

Born of Kennedy's drive for broad exposure, Nixon's gamble for a knockout blow against his greener rival, and the television networks' thirst for respectability, the four presidential debates helped make campaigns truly national, and helped make television their main battleground. The Kennedy-Nixon debates also entered the national consciousness as the true heirs to the debates between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas over the future of slavery.

But there was no true precedent. Lincoln and Douglas debated during their 1858 Senate race, not their presidential contest two years later.

The Kennedy-Nixon debates were marked by image craft, and their impact was not immediately apparent. A year after they occurred, cultural critic Daniel J. Boorstin acidly dismissed them as "remarkably successful in reducing great national issues to trivial dimensions." What people remembered most was Nixon's discomfort during that unprecedented encounter, seen by more than 65 million Americans.

Television was a very young medium, scorned for the stream of game shows and sitcoms it beamed into American homes. But more than 88 percent of U.S. households had a television set in 1960 - eight times as many as did a decade earlier. Presidential candidates began relying on parades and speeches to trigger televised coverage broadcast across the country, rather than to drive regional interest.

Kennedy made television part of his campaign strategy. Concerned that he was slipping against Nixon, he sought as many debates as possible, in hope of attracting a broad audience. Network executives, under duress to fulfill public service requirements, also pushed hard for the debates.

Initially, Nixon balked; he worried that joint appearances would only elevate the profile of the less-prominent Kennedy.

"Nixon felt that he had a name, that he was known as a debater, and that he would be better off campaigning on his own, and not bring Jack Kennedy along," recalls Herbert Klein, Nixon's press secretary on the campaign and later in the White House. "His instructions to me were not to commit to a debate, although I was under tremendous pressure."

So Nixon took Klein and others close to him by surprise when he concluded that a refusal to debate would become a weapon the Democrats would use against him.

As with the Bush and Gore camps, the two sides bickered over details: the colors of the studio walls, the length of the program, the number of debates.

During those negotiations, Klein said, Nixon miscalculated by assuming that the last debate would attract the largest audience. So Nixon demanded that domestic affairs should come first, while the final session should focus on foreign policy, considered his strength.

A week before the first debate, Kennedy flew to a hangar at Chicago's Midway Airport and fired questions at the young CBS news director Don Hewitt, now the executive producer for "60 Minutes."

When do I stand, Kennedy asked. When do I sit? How much time will I have to respond?

In the days before the debate, Kennedy leafed through briefing papers and cast and recast statements proposed by his aides, Ted Sorensen and Richard N. Goodwin. While still making campaign stops, Kennedy was also setting aside time to sun on the roof of his hotel.

By contrast, Nixon approached the first encounter as yet another campaign appearance during an exhausting autumn. He had recently lost 5 to 10 pounds, from illness and fatigue, and his shirt hung a little loosely around his neck. In front of the WBBM television studio in Chicago, Nixon opened the door of his car only to bang it into his knee, aggravating an earlier injury.

Inside, Hewitt greeted Nixon and Kennedy with a joke - "I assume you two guys know each other" - then turned to Kennedy, and asked if he wanted any makeup. Kennedy, rested and bronzed, declined.

"Nixon stood there looking sallow and pasty and not very good - he could have used some makeup," Hewitt says now. "But having heard Kennedy say no, he said no, too." Nixon allowed only the application of a light powder over his heavy 5-o'clock shadow.

In the control booth, Hewitt and CBS President Frank Stanton pulled aside Nixon adviser Ted Rogers to ask: Are you sure you like the way your candidate looks? Rogers shrugged them off.

As the first hour-long program began, at 8:30 p.m. Central Time, CBS moderator Howard K. Smith, introduced the candidates, who sat on either side of him in matching chairs. Each would make an eight-minute opening statement, answer questions from a panel of four reporters, respond to each other's remarks, and offer a three-minute statement at the close. Aside from network staffers and political hands, there was no other audience.

Kennedy rose to speak first. Although the first program nominally focused on domestic affairs, the senator cast unresolved social issues - racial segregation in the South, poverty in Appalachia and inner cities - as a Cold War propaganda boon for the Soviet Union.

"The kind of country we have here, the kind of society we have, the kind of strength we build in the United States will be the defense of freedom," Kennedy said.

His refrain: "I do not think we're doing enough. I'm not satisfied."

Kennedy sought to defuse Nixon's repeated efforts to portray him as inexperienced. "I think Mr. Nixon is an effective leader of his party. I hope he would grant me the same," Kennedy said. "The question before us is: Which point of view and which party do we want to lead the United States?"

Having been warned against confirming his reputation as a nasty campaigner, Nixon failed to emphasize concerns over Kennedy's preparation for the presidency.

"I subscribe completely to the spirit that Senator Kennedy has expressed tonight, the spirit that the United States should move ahead," Nixon said. "Where, then, do we disagree? I think we disagree on the implication of his remarks ... that the United States has been standing still."

As Theodore H. White wrote in "The Making of the President 1960": "Mr. Nixon was debating Mr. Kennedy as if a board of judges were scoring points; he rebutted and refuted, as he went, the inconsistencies or errors of his opponent.

Nixon was addressing himself to Kennedy - but Kennedy was addressing himself to the audience that was the nation."

Within minutes of the candidates taking the podium, perspiration erupted below Nixon's lower lip. Taken with the tight smile that periodically flitted across his lips, and his clutching of the rostrum to avoid swaying, Nixon provided a drama disconnected from the words he was speaking. Those who listened on radio were more inclined to be impressed with him, but the television broadcast had inflicted real damage on Nixon's presidential hopes.

After the first debate, Klein accompanied an exhausted Nixon back to his hotel room in virtual silence, the aide wrote later. "He quickly went to bed and then called several of us in individually to discuss the event," Klein wrote. "I think he felt he had done well, and none of us disillusioned him that evening."

Copyright © 2021, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad