On a late September Monday evening fifty years ago today, 80 million Americans (a number approaching half the population of the United States at the time) sat before their flickering black and white television sets to watch the first televised presidential debate in history.   Millions more listened on radio as Vice President Richard Nixon and Senator John Kennedy squared off in a Chicago studio for the first of four debates, ushering in a new era in presidential politics and a debate about the electoral influence of presidential debates that goes on unabated.
Nixon, a veteran debater of enormous skill, had used debates to great effect, starting with his first foray into politics.  His hard-hitting performance in debates against Congressman Jerry Voorhis in 1946 is still widely credited for Nixon’s upset victory in California’s 12th Congressional District over the five-term incumbent.   And just 14 months before the lights went up in the Windy City, the “Kitchen Debate” in Moscow with Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev had brought Nixon wide acclaim for vigorously defending free enterprise and America’s commitment to peace against the brash and blustering communist leader.

Going into the confrontation, the vice president was expected to dominate the relatively inexperienced Senator from Massachusetts.  Not only was Nixon an accomplished debater, he had also demonstrated his masterful use of television eight years earlier.  His nationally broadcast “Fund Speech” (more commonly known as the “Checkers” speech) rescued his career – and his place on the ticket as Dwight Eisenhower’s vice presidential running mate – from false charges that he had used his public office for personal gain.

When viewers tuned in to watch, they didn’t really know what to expect.  But since television is a visual medium, the first thing they noticed was the appearance of the two candidates.  Kennedy, deeply tanned and immaculately tailored, clearly looked healthier than Nixon, who had not yet fully recovered from a knee infection that had kept him in the hospital and off the campaign trail for two weeks earlier that month. The irony, as we now know, is that Kennedy, despite his hale and hearty appearance, was in fact suffering from a variety of serious medical maladies.   But on the night of September 26, 1960, JFK looked like as vigorous as any man his age.

During the course of the hour Nixon more than held his own on the substance.  Indeed, polling of those who heard the debate on radio thought Nixon had “won” the debate.  The television cameras, however, were not kind to him that evening.  To those who watched the debate, Kennedy had come out on top.

In the following debates, Nixon’s appearance matched his debating skills.  He had regained the weight he lost during his hospitalization and availed himself of the skills of a makeup artist.  Unfortunately, however, the TV audience for the subsequent debates was 25 percent lower than for the first.

RN would reflect on that first debate 30 years later in In the Arena, “I did not feel tired but I looked tired, and I had foolishly not put on makeup to compensate for the bags under my eyes and my five-o’clock shadow.”  As he related in Six Crises, his appearance on television prompted his mother to inquire from California whether her son was “feeling all right.”

Over the five decades since that historic exchange, the conventional wisdom has held that Nixon was clearly bested by Kennedy, not on the substance but on appearances, and that the election ultimately turned on that first debate.  While the first part of that conclusion is demonstrably true, the second is not.  “Winning” that first debate did not directly translate into “winning” the election, as a look at results of the Gallup Poll before and after the debate demonstrate.

As Nixon wrote in his memoirs, “Before the first debate, Gallup had shown Kennedy ahead, 51 percent to 49 percent.  Seven weeks later, after all the debates [there would be three more] and intensive media nationwide campaigning, Gallup showed Kennedy with 50.5 percent and me with 49.5.  On Election Day the polls were virtually even: 49.7 for Kennedy, 49.6 for me.”

As the astute reader will notice, Nixon’s account did not, however, include the results of a Gallup Poll taken in the immediate aftermath of the first debate.  That omission, however, does not change the thrust of RN’s analysis.

In 1996, Chris Matthews attempts to advance the conventional wisdom by citing the results of the “Who won the first debate?” poll numbers.  In Kennedy and Nixon: The Rivalry That Shaped Postwar America, the “Hardball” host wrote: “After weeks of parity in the polls, one candidate moved into a clear lead.  A Gallup survey taken the days following the Great Debate found Nixon with 46 percent, Kennedy pulling ahead to 49 percent.”

Interestingly, the lead that Kennedy supposedly opened up because of his debate performance is, however, still within the poll’s margin of error (and actually shows a slight, but statistically insignificant, erosion in both candidates’ numbers).  I think one would be hard-pressed to find a non-partisan statistician who would characterize the change from a one-point margin to a three-point margin “a clear lead.”

Over the course of the final five weeks of the campaign that followed that first debate, the race remained neck and neck.  The election on November 8, 1960, produced the closest election of the 20th century (depending, of course, on whether one counts the year 2000 as part of the 20th or 21st century).  So in the end, it would not appear that the first debate (nor any of the three subsequent debates) propelled Kennedy into the presidency.  Instead it appears that Kennedy’s election had as much to do with the usual rhythms of American politics as anything else (and supplemented, perhaps, by some of the usual chicanery in Illinois and Texas).

The great unanswered (and unanswerable) question, however is this: Had RN used make-up fifty years ago tonight, would he have opened up a lead that Kennedy would have been unable to close?  It’s sobering (and really rather depressing) to think that the future of the free world might have hinged on the want a few dabs of pancake makeup, just as the “want of a nail” at the Battle of Bosworth Field was said to have led to death of Richard III in 1485*.  History demonstrates time and again that some of the greatest turning points in the annals of time have been launched by seemingly insignificant decisions or events.  The first Nixon-Kennedy debate, however, was not one of them.

*For Want of a Nail

For want of a nail the shoe was lost.
For want of a shoe the horse was lost.
For want of a horse the rider was lost.
For want of a rider the battle was lost.
For want of a battle the kingdom was lost.
And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.