Billed as the most important presidential debate since Kennedy-Nixon, the recent Trump-Biden showdown came off like a poorly staged re-creation of the “Thrilla in Manilla.” Actually, the Ali bout with Frazier was more aesthetically satisfying.
Over 73 million television viewers watched the President and former Vice President carpet-bomb what was left of civility in American political discourse. Showmanship almost always triumphs over substance in presidential debates, but this was not even good showmanship.
The Kennedy-Nixon duel, which was held in Chicago sixty years ago, was free of name calling, interruptions and “gotcha” moments. That debate, which is available below, was heavy on substance — an informative exchange between two serious, intellectually adept participants.
When Vice President Nixon and Senator Kennedy squared off at 8:30 pm (CST), September 26, 1960, in Chicago’s WBBM studios, a record television audience was watching.
To comprehend the size of that audience, remember, television was exploding in post-war America. In 1950, slightly more than 10 percent of the country’s households had a TV–that number had ballooned to 88 percent by the evening of the debate. An estimated 75 million Americans were tuned in (that accounts for over 60 percent of all sets in the nation).
What viewers saw that evening was a rested, telegenic Senator hold his own with a tense, sallow Vice President whose manner was awkward and obviously strained.
Nixon, in an eerie foreshadowing of the way his political career would ultimately end, made a series of self-destructive, pre-debate choices which put him at great disadvantage.
First, in his Republican acceptance speech on August 28, Nixon announced he would carry the campaign “into every one of the 50 states” before Election Day. This exhausting travel schedule, with relatively primitive resources, diminished him physically throughout the 3-month political drive.
Second, Nixon dismissed President Eisenhower’s recommendation to avoid any televised debates. Getting on stage with the Senator, Eisenhower argued, enhanced the prestige of the Massachusetts Democrat. It made them equals in the eyes of the public.
Quite mistakenly, Nixon felt television was his medium. After all, the 1952 “Checkers’ Speech” on TV saved his political hide. He was brimming with a false sense of mastery which proved to be disastrous.
Third, due to his demanding schedule, Nixon’s prep time was sharply limited. He arrived in Chicago after midnight the evening before the debate, spoke to the Carpenters’ Union the next morning and saved only a few hours that afternoon to review his strategy.
In contrast, Kennedy was well primed. He arrived in Chicago the day before and enjoyed a relaxed evening. Early the next morning, Kennedy met with his debate advisors, spoke to the same Carpenters’ Union, and returned to his hotel suite for a nap.
Complicating matters further, fate dealt Nixon a cruel blow. While campaigning in Greensboro, North Carolina, in mid-August, he smacked his knee cap into a car door which caused a serious infection. On debate night, just as Nixon emerged from his car to enter the studio, he struck the knee again—reactivating the painful injury.
Nixon later wrote: “When I arrived at the studio I was mentally alert but I was physically worn out and looked it. Between illness and schedule, I was 10 pounds underweight. My collar was now a full size too large…Kennedy arrived ten minutes later, looking tanned, rested and fit.”
CBS director, Don Hewitt, held a pre-debate meeting with both candidates and was aghast at Nixon’s gaunt appearance. Hewitt suggested make-up, but Nixon, hearing that Kennedy was not being made up, declined as well.
When camera checks were done, Nixon was advised that make up was needed but again refused. Eventually, he chose “Lazy Shave” to cover his five o’clock shadow—the product only served to highlight Nixon’s heavy sweating under the hot studio lights. Rejecting professional make-up was another critical, unforced error, one which proved fatal.
Kennedy wore a blue shirt to further soften his on-camera look and articulated his arguments forcefully during the debate. He spoke directly into the camera, a technique which engaged the audience. Nixon, shifting from one leg to the other due to a throbbing knee, was no match in style to the impeccably smooth Senator.
After the debate, Kennedy vaulted to a lead in the polls and ultimately won the election by 113,000 votes. He told reporter Theodore White, “It was TV more than anything else that turned the tide.”