50 Years Later: the Kennedy-Nixon Debates

There was a pretty significant TV anniversary over the weekend–50 years since the Kennedy-Nixon Presidential Debates. They were billed as “The Great Debates” when the first of four aired over three U.S. networks on Sept. 26, 1960.
They were the first televised presidential debates and the opener is generally considered to have boosted then senator John F. Kennedy’s chances at defeating his better known rival Richard Nixon, who had served eight years as Dwight Eisenhower’s Red baiting vice president.
The debates took place at Chicago CBS affiliate WBBM-TV. The exact size of the U.S. viewing audience is quoted at anywhere from 60 to 80 million (Wikipedia has it at 66 million out of a population of 179 million). It was likely the largest TV audience up until that time and gives some indication of the impact these debates had on what was one of the closest elections in presidential history.
It has so much impact, in fact, there were no presidential debates in 1964, ’68 and ’72. Nixon was involved in two of those elections and was probably not very interested in risking another one. He went into the debate as the guy who had used TV to restore his reputation in his early ’50s “Checkers” speech. His 1968 “Sock it to me?” cameo on Laugh-In was a controlled hit that some feel helped soften his image heading into the also tight ’68 contest.
Aaron Barnhart in the Kansas City Star has a terrific report on the first of those four debates, you can jump to it here.
Barnhart spoke with Sander Vanocur, who moderated that first debate and was in Kansas City Sunday to take part in a series of commentaries on the debates. The veteran newsman, now 82, was an NBC correspondent at the time and only had a few days to find a clean suit, come up with questions and get to Chicago to join reporters from the other networks. Howard K. Smith moderated the debate. Future 60 Minutes executive producer Don Hewitt pulled the shows together.

Don Hewitt preps candidates Kennedy and Nixon

Barnhart’s story includes Vanocur’s own impression of the first debate: “I thought both of them did well,” he says. That’s generally not the finding of history. What turned the tide in Kennedy’s favour, or so we’ve always been told, was style over substance. Kennedy had the dark suit, Nixon disappeared into the background in grey. Nixon had injured his leg, caught an infection and looked like death, Kennedy was tanned and rested. Kennedy faked his foe out by refusing makeup; the flop sweat on Nixon’s five o’clock shadow grossed out half the nation.
Barnhart’s story goes on to suggest that another Kennedy fake out in the fourth and final debate might have been the real knock out punch. Given that the winner got to bang Marilyn, he must have been motivated.
Canada didn’t have a televised leaders debate until the 1968 election, with Pierre Trudeau, Robert Stanfield and Tommy Douglas duking it out. I’m pretty sure I watched that one as a lad but I have no memory of it and by all accounts it was pretty dull–especially compared to the Kennedy-Nixon tilt.

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