W. Barksdale Maynard: Debating on Television: Then and Now

Roundup: Talking About History

[W. Barksdale Maynard is an independent scholar and writer specializing in the history of American architecture.]

Half a century ago, American politics stumbled into a new era. In WBBM-TV studios in Chicago on September 26, 1960, presidential candidates Richard M. Nixon and John F. Kennedy stood before cameras and hot lights for the first-ever televised presidential debate. An extraordinary 60 percent of adults nationwide tuned in. This encounter—the first of four—boosted support for Kennedy, a little-known Massachusetts senator and political scion who would go on to win the White House. Elections in the United States would never be the same again. No single aspect of presidential campaigns attracts as much interest as televised debates, and they have provided some of the most memorable moments in modern political history.

In 1960, Nixon, then vice president, was expected to perform brilliantly against Kennedy, but few politicians have ever bombed so badly. The striking contrast of their images on the television screen made all the difference. Nixon, who had recently been in the hospital with a knee injury, was pale, underweight, and running a fever, while Kennedy, fresh from campaigning in California, was tanned and buoyantly energetic. Before they went on the air, both candidates refused the services of a cosmetician. Kennedy’s staff, however, gave him a quick touch up. Nixon, cursed by a five o’clock shadow, slapped on Lazy Shave, an over-the counter powder cover-up. It would only heighten his ghastly pallor on the TV screen. Voters who listened to the debate on the radio thought Nixon performed just as expertly as Kennedy, but TV viewers could not see beyond his haggard appearance.

Sander Vanocur, who was a member of the press panel with NBC for that premier debate, says today that he was too caught up in the moment to notice Nixon’s illness, but he recalls that the vice president “seemed to me to be developing some sweat around his lips.” One thing, however, was unmistakable, Vanocur says: “Kennedy had a sure sense of who he was, and it seemed to radiate that night.” Countless viewers agreed. Later, Kennedy said that he never would have won the White House without the televised debates, which so effectively brought him into the living rooms of more than 65 million people....
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