Lights, Camera, Debate!

On September 26, 1960, for the first time in U.S. history, a debate between major party presidential candidates was broadcast on television. The presidential hopefuls, John F. Kennedy, a Democratic senator of Massachusetts, and Richard M. Nixon, the Vice-President of the United States, met in a Chicago studio to discuss U.S. domestic matters.

Kennedy emerged the apparent winner from this first of four televised debates, partly owing to his greater ease before the camera than Nixon, who, unlike Kennedy, seemed nervous and declined to wear makeup. Nixon appeared pasty and sweaty with a five-o’clock shadow, using “Lazy-Shave” in lieu of a razor before airtime. Kennedy, conversely, was tan, rested and ready.

The campaign itself was hard fought and bitter for all to see with three more televised debates, and many observers believed that Kennedy’s poised and charming performances during four debates made the difference in the final vote. Issues, however, also played a role in the election, and the nation’s foreign policy was a major bone of contention between Kennedy and Nixon.

Nixon took every opportunity to characterize Kennedy as too young and inexperienced to handle the awesome responsibilities of America’s Cold War diplomacy, though Nixon was only 48 months older. He defended the past eight years of Republican rule, failing to see that the peace, prosperity and optimism of Eisenhower era were personal attributes to Ike alone. Kennedy further presaged future tactics by nimbly running to the right of the GOP on foreign policy in arguments for a “flexible response,” then tacking to the center in office.

Kennedy claimed during the campaign that he looked forward to meeting the challenges facing the strongest nation in the Free World; he did not have long to wait before those challenges were upon him. Off to fits and starts after inauguration, Kennedy came to preside over the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Peace Corps, the Civil Rights Movement, the Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, NASA, nuanced economic policy and a host of other New Frontier innovations setting the stage for a stellar second term in office which tragically never came.

Kennedy continues to rank highly in historians’ polls of US presidents and with the general public. His average approval rating of 70% is the highest of any president in Gallup’s history of systematically measuring job approval.

Turning one last time to the debates, after the last tilt in the Fall of ’60, major-party presidential nominees did not publicly joust again until Carter-Ford, 16 years later.

Author: Bill Urich

A tail-end baby-boomer, Bill Urich was born in Cleveland to a grade school teacher and her Navy vet husband, and reared in Greater Detroit. Working his way through school primarily at night, Mr. Urich holds a Bachelor’s in Journalism, Phi Beta Kappa, and a Juris Doctorate from Wayne State University. In his legal career he has acted as an assistant state prosecutor, city attorney, special prosecutor, mediator, magistrate, private practitioner and mayor of Royal Oak, a large home-rule city in Michigan. Mr. Urich continues in private practice and municipal prosecution, is on faculty to DePaul University, pens regular contributions to political publications, and remains active in selected campaigns and causes related to labor, social and criminal justice. A father of three mostly-grown sons, he spends his precious free time on family, friends, the pursuit of happiness, beauty and truth, three rescue cats, and fronting the rock band Calcutta Rugs from behind the drum kit.