With a little over a month to go until election day, polling showed Republican Vice-president Richard Nixon with a slim lead over his rival, Democratic Senator John Kennedy, in the race to choose the successor to two-term President Dwight Eisenhower. On September 26, 1960 both candidates met at a CBS television studio in Chicago. For the first time ever, the presidential debate would be televised. Seventy-million viewers tuned in that evening.
Those who listened to the debate on the radio perceived Nixon as victorious. Television viewers saw Kennedy as the clear winner.
Richard M. Nixon was finishing his second term as vice-president. Prior to that he served two terms in the House of Representatives and was elected to the Senate in 1950. He made a national name for himself in Congress as a zealous anti-communist with his pursuit of alleged spy Alger Hiss.
John F. Kennedy, scion of a prominent New England family and a World War II hero, served three terms in the House and was in his first term in the U.S. Senate. His legislative career so far had been undistinguished. His father had financed his campaigns. He was Catholic, seen as a disadvantage in those days because of fears his allegiance would be to the Pope, not to the American people.
Both candidates had campaigned vigorously through the summer. Nixon lost two weeks of August to a hospital stay caused by an infection in his knee after bashing it against a car door. He emerged pallid and underweight, but relentlessly continued campaigning right up to the day of the debate.
Kennedy had taken the prior weekend off, resting and fielding debate questions from aides. With a face tanned by weeks of outdoor electioneering the forty-three-year-old candidate exuded youth and health, in spite of constant pain from a bad back. (Nuns in my parochial grade school swooned over the handsome — and Catholic — JFK.)
Nixon, recently recovered from a bout of flu and still running a fever, spent the day of the debate campaigning. Exiting from his car at the studio, he banged his bad knee again. On the screen, viewers saw perspiration on his face under the hot lights. Studio lighting also exacerbated his afternoon beard. (“I can shave within thirty seconds before I go on television and still have a beard,” he had earlier told Walter Cronkite.)
During the debate, Kennedy appeared at ease, focussing directly into the camera as he answered questions. Nixon, on the other hand, looked off to the side when addressing the various reporters. He appeared to viewers to be shifting his gaze to avoid eye contact with the public.
CBS’s producer/director Don Hewitt, who would later create the long-running “60 Minutes,” remarked on the appearance of Kennedy, “looking tan and fit…this guy was a matinee idol,” versus Nixon “like death warmed over,” pale and sweating and in pain.
Kennedy’s triumph in the debate carried over into November, garnering 49.7 percent of the popular vote to Nixon’s 49.5 percent.
Kennedy was assassinated three years later. Nixon reinvented himself and won the presidency in 1968. He was reelected by a landslide in 1972 but by 1974, with impeachment imminent, he resigned in disgrace.
Since 1960 political campaigns have been as much about style as about substance. Presidential candidates purposefully prepare for debates, rehearsing their one-liners and practicing their comfortable appearances aided by professional make-up artists.