“…we could only guess which program would have the larger audience. Foreign affairs was my strong suit, and I wanted the larger audience for that debate. I thought more people would watch the first one, and that interest would diminish as the novelty of the confrontation wore off. Most of my advisers believed that interest would build as the campaign progressed, and that the last program, nearest Election Day, would be the most important one.”
– Richard M. Nixon in “RN – the Memoirs of Richard M. Nixon.”
On today’s date – October 7 in 1960, then Vice President Nixon and Senator John F. Kennedy squared off in the second of four televised debates. At that point in time, television was a relatively new medium. Nixon had used TV once before – in 1952 his famous“Checkers” speech, in which he invoked the name of the family dog to deflect charges that he had accepted improper gifts from contributors. It was a performance that had saved his spot on the Republican ticket with Dwight D. Eisenhower. But this was eight years later and the challenger was JFK. The two men were about the same age, and both were were very intelligent, capable, and awesomely ambitious. But Kennedy was extraordinarily photogenic, and Nixon was not. And this disparity was very evident on the TV screen. Author Theodore H. White remarked on the TV appearance of Nixon:
“(Nixon in person) was attractively slim, as lithe as an athlete. His face…was a smiling one…broad and open… the heavy eyebrows and broad forehead give it a clean, masculine quality. Yet on television, the deep eye wells and heavy brows cast a shadow on the face and it glowered on the screen darkly…and showed ferocity.“
Nixon and Kennedy’s Appearance on T.V. Cameras Differs
Nixon was also in poor health during the first debate on Sept.26. He had injured his knee recently, and it was still in considerable pain. In addition, he had kept up an exhausting schedule of campaign appearances. So as Nixon himself acknowledged he was physically worn out and looked it. And any modern viewer, used to the heavily made-up appearance of TV personalities in the modern age can see the difference. Kennedy looks tan, rested and quite relaxed as he gives calm and seemingly reasonable, substantive answers to the questions. Nixon, on the other hand, giving answers that are in fact equally substantive and reasonable nevertheless appears to to glower meanly at the camera, looking uncomfortable and combative.
The Radio Audience -vs- the TV Audience
In that first debate, both men did well on substance. Most editorial writers called it a draw. Audiences who listened on radio gave the edge to Nixon. But the majority of the audience who watched the debate on TV judged Kennedy to be the winner. That first debate of 1960 focused on domestic issues. The second one of October 7 was focused on foreign affairs. Nixon was in better physical shape, and turned in a better performance. But the audience for the second debate had fallen to 60 million viewers, down from the 80 million who had seen the first one. It can’t be said with any precision that the ill impression Nixon showed on TV in the first debate actually cost him the 1960 election. But the debates had certainly helped JFK’s stature, moving him from a young challenger to a man who could hold his own with the Vice President of the United States. And since the election wound up being decided by barely 100,000 votes, anything could have made the difference. As for Nixon, his conclusion on TV debates was not surprising:
“As for television debates in general, I doubt that they can ever serve a responsible role in defining the issues of a presidential campaign. Because of the nature of the medium, there will inevitably be a greater premium on showmanship than on statesmanship.”
Dick Morris has an interesting prospective on this story… click on this phrase for a link to that.
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“RN – The Memoirs of Richard Nixon” by Richard Nixon, Simon & Schuster, New York, 1978.
“The Making of a President 1960” by T.H. White, Athaneum House, New York, 1961.
“NIXON: Volume One; The Education of a Politician 1913-1962.” by Stephen E. Ambrose, Simon & Schuster, New York, 1987