Forty-nine years ago tonight —on Monday 26 September 1960— the first televised debate ever held between presidential candidates was broadcast coast-to-coast. Vice President Richard M. Nixon and Massachusetts Senator John F. Kennedy faced off in the studios of WBBM-TV, the Chicago CBS affiliate, and together they forever changed the face of American politics.
For some reason the first of the four YouTube videos of the first Nixon-Kennedy debate is disabled. You can see it here.
Here are parts 2-4:
A transcript of the first Nixon-Kennedy debate can be found here.
The influence of the TV debates in general —and of the first one in particular (viewership declined with each subsequent rematch)— in changing voters’ minds has become a subject of some debate. But in what would become the November 8 cliffhanger, any factor was bound to be significant. As Erika Tyner Allen described it:
At election time, more than half of all voters reported that the Great Debates had influenced their opinion; 6% reported that their vote was the result of the debates alone. Thus, regardless of whether the debates changed the election result, voters pointed to the debates as a significant reason for electing Kennedy.
The outcome of the first, and most important, debate ended up turning on appearance rather than substance. RN had only been out of the hospital for a couple of weeks, and had carried on a grueling campaign schedule right up until he arrived at the studio. He had lost an inch in collar size but hadn’t bought any new shirts. He looked tired and gaunt. To add insult to injury (literally) RN wore a light suit because he had been told that the background would be dark. It wasn’t, and he faded into it while Kennedy popped vigorously out.
JFK, who had a recently-refreshed Palm Beach tan, had spent the afternoon resting, in one way or another, in a hotel room.
Marshall McLuhan famously analyzed the debate, ascribing Kennedy’s victory to his objective, disinterested, “cool” persona; while RN’s arsenal of talents (resonant voice, rigorous logic) were better suited to the “hot” medium of radio. Indeed, polls showed that people who listened to this debate on radio considered RN the winner.
Several years ago, the late Don Hewitt, who produced that first debate, recalled some of the determinative atmospherics.
And RN, in RN, agreed:
It is a devastating commentary on the nature of television as a political medium that what hurt me the most in the first debate was not the substance of the encounter between Kennedy and me, but the disadvantageous contrast in our physical appearances. After the program ended, callers, including my mother, wanted to know if anything was wrong, because I did not look well.
What turned out to be a telling range of skin tones: On stage on the night of 26 September 1960, JFK, producer Don Hewitt, and RN.