It was the first time two presidential candidates had ever squared off on live television, and for the young reporter just breaking into TV news, the two men debating on the flickering screen were a case study in television dos and don’ts.
“I was working at KHOU in Houston, just starting out in my so-called career,” says Dan Rather. “I had always been told, ‘Wear a dark suit on television.’ And there was John F. Kennedy, wearing a dark suit. Richard Nixon, on the other hand, was wearing a light gray suit.”
The two men stood in stark contrast, literally: On black-and-white screens, Kennedy was dominant against a light background, while Nixon seemed to blend into his surroundings.
The 2020 presidential election marks the 60th anniversary of the landmark televised Kennedy-Nixon debates, a series of events that have shaped national politics ever since. Even before television, candidates’ charisma had always played a role in elections, but it was the 1960 face-off, viewed by nearly 70 million people, that forever elevated style to the level of substance—and sometimes beyond.
On TV, style really mattered. As a correspondent, Rather had been trained “to always look into the camera, into the living room of the viewer,” he recalls. Likewise, “Kennedy kept his gaze straight ahead, engaging his TV audience. But Nixon kept looking from side to side, addressing the reporters in the studio. The effect was Kennedy seemed confident; Nixon seemed like he didn’t want to be there.”
Rather recalls sharing his immediate impression with the two other people at the station that night, an engineer and a director. “I turned to them and I said, ‘I don’t just think Kennedy can win this thing…I think he just might do it.’”
The two had been running neck-and-neck, and Nixon had been surging in the days leading up to the debate. But in its aftermath, Kennedy opened a 48 to 43 percent lead, according to JFK’s internal pollster Lou Harris, “the first time that either candidate had been able to show the other one open water.”
The lead didn’t last, but the lesson was undeniable: TV debates had a visceral impact on voters.
The first 1960 presidential debate, televised on Monday, September 26, from the studios of WBBM in Chicago, was not the first head-to-head encounter between Kennedy and Nixon. That face-off had come 13 years earlier, under much different circumstances, and with a very different outcome.
As rising stars of their respective political parties, Congressmen Kennedy and Nixon had traveled by train from Washington, D.C., to Pittsburgh, where they debated issues of the day at Junto, a civic club in the steel town of McKeesport. The two argued labor legislation, something that was clearly closer to blue-collar Nixon’s heart than to Ivy League Kennedy’s.
“He won that one,” Kennedy admitted to a crowd in McKeesport upon his return there as president, “and we went on to other things.”
In an act of civility perhaps unimaginable today, “Kennedy and Nixon shared a sleeper car on the Capital Limited going back to D.C.,” says longtime MSNBC host Chris Matthews, who wrote about the pair in his book Kennedy & Nixon: The Rivalry That Shaped Postwar America. “They even drew straws to see who’d get the lower berth. Nixon won.”
The two were never close friends, but they were certainly friendly, exchanging notes and messages of congratulations. Kennedy even invited Nixon to his 1953 wedding—an offer Nixon, by then vice president, had to refuse because President Eisenhower had invited him to play golf in California.
A lot had changed by the time 1960 rolled around. Thirteen years earlier, in that backwater Pennsylvania town, the two men had been on equal footing as freshman congressmen. Now Nixon was a national figure. He’d filled in for President Eisenhower when Ike was hospitalized for a heart attack. He’d prevailed in a verbal showdown with Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev at a Moscow exhibition.
He’d even proved to be a master of the new television medium. In 1952, Nixon commanded one of the largest TV audiences of all time when he defended himself against improper campaign financing allegations in his wildly successful “Checkers” speech—so-named after the puppy a supporter had given to his daughter Tricia. “No matter what they say about it,” a nearly tearful Nixon had declared, “we’re gonna keep it.” The speech was a sensation. Support for Nixon poured in from across the country, and the allegations evaporated. (Pictures capture the bond between politicians and their dogs.)
Kennedy, for all his charisma, was in 1960 still a regional politician. True, the senator from Massachusetts was a war hero and media darling who’d recently won the Pulitzer Prize for Profiles in Courage, a collection of short biographies that had been largely ghostwritten by his gifted speech writer, Ted Sorensen. But in the final analysis, he still desperately needed voters to see him on an equal level with the sitting vice president. A televised debate was the perfect venue for that.
“In hindsight you’d say Nixon should never have debated JFK—what was he thinking?” says Luke Nichter, professor of history at Texas A&M University and a leading expert on Nixon’s 3,432 hours of secret White House tapes.
Nixon’s choice for vice president, Henry Cabot Lodge—who had lost his Senate seat to Kennedy in 1952—strongly opposed the debate. He reasoned that despite the close poll numbers, Nixon, as vice president, was the clear front runner, and thus had little to gain and much to lose.
“Lodge warned Nixon that these events tend to be not really debates, but instead competitive press conferences,” says Nichter. “But as so often happens in politics, ego sort of took over. It was just such a high-profile event, with such a huge national audience. Any person in public life would have found it very difficult to say no.”
Sunshine, Peggy Lee, and a bum knee
On the day of the first debate, JFK—who’d spent much of the previous week preparing with mock debate opponents—sunned, napped, and listened to records by 1950s songstress Peggy Lee. Nixon—who’d been furiously playing catch-up on the campaign trail after having spent three weeks in the hospital with a badly inflamed knee—spent the hours before the most important appearance of his life speaking at a Chicago Carpenters Union event and making several other campaign stops around town. When his car finally arrived at the TV station, he climbed out of the back seat—and slammed his bad knee against the door frame.
Kennedy was offered TV makeup, and he refused. Overhearing that, Nixon likewise turned it down, forgetting that JFK was tanned and rested, while he was pale and gaunt from his hospital stay.
Tired, hurting, sweating, and sporting his perpetual five o’clock shadow—despite a last-minute application of a beard-covering product called LazyShave—Nixon got a telephone pep talk from Lodge. Fearing that Nixon’s hard-hitting reputation would not play well against Kennedy’s nice-guy demeanor, Lodge advised his running mate to back off.
“Erase the assassin image,” Lodge said.
Meanwhile, JFK was getting coached by his brother Robert. According to Chris Matthews, “Bobby told him, ‘Kick him in the balls.’”
Today, anyone watching that first debate on YouTube can see how each man took those last-minute directions to heart. JFK immediately went on the attack, launching into scathing criticism of the Eisenhower administration’s foreign policy—even though the agreed-upon topic of the first debate was to be domestic issues. JFK was smooth and practiced, so comfortable in front of the camera that he seemed more at ease than even the moderator, CBS’s Howard K. Smith.
Nixon, on the other hand, played so nice that he seemed strikingly unlike his usually combative self. “The things that Senator Kennedy has said,” he began, “many of us can agree with.” Time and again, he found ways to find common ground with Kennedy and remained a perfect gentleman. He smiled awkwardly in what occasionally appeared to be a pained grimace—and perhaps it was, given the throbbing pain in his knee.
And, yes, he stood there in a gray suit, eyes shifting right and left, breaking the cardinal rules of television.
Over the past 60 years the myth has persisted that while Kennedy blew Nixon out of the water on TV that night, radio audiences came away feeling Nixon had won the debate. The reality, though, is more complicated.
University studies of polls taken immediately after the first debate show no clear difference between the audiences—although it appears radio listenership was remarkably low, as Americans flocked to their living room TVs to witness the historic event.
Before and after the debate, the Gallup Poll had the presidential race a virtual tie. But in the eyes of the viewing public, Nichter says, Lodge’s worst fear had come true: “Kennedy was raised in status from just a senator to the same level as a sitting vice president.” (Meet history's most notorious liars—including Nixon.)
Second debate heats up
History remembers that first 1960 debate as a watershed event, but it was just the first of four debates between the two candidates. More than 60 million viewers tuned in for the second debate, which originated from the studios of WRC-TV in Washington, D.C.
“The Kennedy people came in before the second debate and saw that the room was freezing, like a meat locker,” says Matthews, whose news-talk series Hardball originated from the same studios for more than 20 years. Kennedy’s media advisor ran to the thermostat and discovered that a Nixon aide had turned the heat down because “he didn’t want his boss to sweat the way he had the first time around. So they had a big fight over that and finally the Kennedy guy got the heat turned back up.”
It didn’t really matter. Nixon arrived for the second debate rested, healthy, and wearing a very Kennedyesque black suit. As seen on the YouTube video, this time around he’s very much the old Nixon: feisty, combative, and sure of himself. Kennedy, as well, gives a spirited performance, and each combatant lands a number of solid punches.
There is probably no truly objective way to measure these things, but analysts generally agree that while Kennedy won the first debate through his ability to control the proceedings, Nixon emerged the victor in the second debate and also the third—a remarkably complex event that involved a split screen with Kennedy debating from New York, Nixon debating from California, and CBS moderator Bill Shadel based in Chicago.
By the time of the fourth debate, from ABC Television’s New York Studios barely two weeks before the election, the two candidates had settled into a virtual tie, with Kennedy at 51 percent and Nixon at 49 percent. Likewise, their final debate was considered a draw.
Perhaps not coincidentally, the more Nixon’s TV performances improved, the closer he pulled to JFK.
After one of the longest election nights in history up to that time, Kennedy eked out the win over Nixon. The official count gave JFK a razor-thin popular vote edge of 112,827 votes, with 303 electoral votes compared to Nixon’s 219.
It would be 16 years before presidential candidates again faced each other on live TV. (Test your knowledge with U.S. presidential trivia.)
In 1963, JFK and the presumptive Republican nominee Barry Goldwater had tentatively agreed to barnstorm the country together during the 1964 election. But after Kennedy was assassinated and Lyndon B. Johnson ascended to the presidency, Johnson saw no point in debating Goldwater, who was far behind in the polls. Back on the ticket in 1968, Nixon—still stinging from the reviews of his first JFK encounter—refused a debate challenge from Hubert Humphrey. In 1972 he was running so far ahead of George McGovern that he didn’t think twice about refusing to debate.
Not until President Gerald Ford found himself in a tight race against Governor Jimmy Carter in 1976 did the presidential debates return, and they’ve been a fixture ever since. They are an essential quadrennial civics lesson, says Rather, whose recent book, What Unites Us, will be released as a graphic novel aimed at young readers in February.
For those who dare step into the presidential debate spotlight, Rather, who moderated a Democratic presidential debate in 1984, says there are some timeless lessons that can be gleaned from that first encounter in September 1960.
“First, practice, practice, practice. There’s no substitute for being prepared. President Kennedy practiced quite a bit for the first debate, while President Nixon did not.”
Beyond that, he says, presidential debaters would do well to get plenty of rest, pay attention to TV’s peculiar arts of lighting and makeup, and focus on the viewers at home, not the studio audience.
Finally, Rather adds, “For heaven’s sake, wear a dark suit!”