Kennedy vs. Nixon: The very first presidential debate

September 26, 2012

We are in the midst of a presidential campaign. We take in for granted the two candidates will meet in a formal debate or two, or more. We look forward to seeing our alpha-contenders go one-on-one.

But in a historic sense, presidential debates are new. The very first one took place on September 26, 1960, here in Chicago.

A presidential debate had long been thought of as a great idea — which would never happen. Candidates didn’t want to put themselves in an uncontrolled situation where one slip-up might be fatal.

But 1960 was different. The country was gearing up for the 1961 Civil War Centennial. That brought to mind the celebrated Lincoln-Douglas Senatorial Debates.

There was also television. Ten years before, only 4 million homes had TV sets. In 1960 there were 44 million. The publicity now outweighed the possible disadvantages.

The Republican candidate was Vice President Richard Nixon. The Democrats had nominated Senator John F. Kennedy. Both men were young, in their mid-40s. Nixon was better-known, though more controversial.

The candidates had known each other for years. When they arrived at the CBS Studio on McClurg Court, they made small talk while shaking hands and smiling for the cameras. Nixon: “Say, that was a big crowd you had in Cleveland.” Kennedy: “Are you leaving [Chicago] tonight, or staying over?”

The debate was on domestic issues. Each man made an opening statement. Then they responded to questions from four newsmen. After a chance to rebut his opponent, each man made a closing statement.

Both candidates came through the one-hour test fine. They stayed on message. There were no major gaffes.

How did they come across on the TV screen? That was another matter.

Nixon looked terrible. He’d been sick, and it showed. On the black-and-white TV, his gray suit blended into the stage background. He refused to wear make-up, so his five-o’clock-shadow made him look sinister.

On the other hand, the TV camera loved Kennedy. He appeared poised and confident, cool and in control. One reporter gushed that the Democratic candidate had “star quality.”

The audience for the debate was about 70 million, out of a U.S. population of 160 million. Most TV viewers reckoned that Kennedy had won. That may have been the triumph of style over substance. A majority of people listening on radio thought Nixon had won — though some scholars dispute this.

Whatever the case, Kennedy now moved ahead in the polls. There were three more debates, with no clear winner. In the election itself, Kennedy won a narrow victory.

There were no debates during the next three presidential campaigns. They resumed in 1976, and have been with us ever since.