Boomers Watched the First Presidential TV Debates

We are well into the 2020 presidential election with more than an estimated 6 million people having already cast their ballots in early voting as of this writing. We have had one televised presidential and vice presidential debate each, already. There was to be a televised debate this week, which was to be a town hall format and was cancelled for health reasons. There is still one more planned for next week.

The situation could not be further from what transpired 60 years ago, the first year that presidential debates were televised. However, an examination of the history shows that spats between the two parties appeared from the very first of the TV debates. Mister Boomer has written about that very first debate, which aired on September 26, 1960, between then Vice President Richard Nixon and Senator John Kennedy (The First Televised Presidential Debate was Broadcast In Our Boomer Years).

Nixon and Kennedy had agreed to three debates. Consensus in the press put Kennedy as the victor in the first debate. Kennedy had talked to TV producers to get some pointers on what to wear. The vast majority of viewers would be tuning in on black & white TV sets, and the background was light, so they suggested he wear a navy color suit to stand out in contrast. He also asked about camera angles and lighting. In other words, he tried to prepare for his appearance in this new medium. Nixon was caught off guard in his gray suit and blended into the gray background. Worse yet, unaccustomed to studio lighting and recovering from the flu, close-up shots showed him sweating profusely on his upper lip. Nixon did not fare well in his first TV appearance.

For the second debate on Friday, October 7, 1960, Nixon’s staff got to the TV studio early and turned the thermostat down so their candidate would not be shown sweating. When Kennedy’s people arrived, the studio temperature was described as “frigid.” They went to the thermostat only to find it guarded by Nixon’s people. A discussion ensued and a more reasonable temperature was agreed upon. Most press at the time placed Nixon as the victor in round two.

The third of the debates on October 13, 1960, had the scintillating topic of whether military force should be used to prevent two islands off the coast of China from falling under Communist rule. Now, 60 years later, what is fascinating about that debate is that due to scheduling difficulties, the candidates could not appear in the same studio. Both were on the campaign trail, so Kennedy appeared in a New York studio, while Nixon was in Los Angeles. Meanwhile, the debate moderator and panel of questioners were in Chicago. It was real TV history — a broadcast from three combined locations that was beamed to the TV audience on all three networks (ABC, CBS, NBC). The background was the same for each candidate, so on a split screen the two appeared as if they were in the same studio. The press called this one a draw.

Both parties were exhausted from the rigors of what the televised debates placed on them in the last weeks before the election. Nixon, especially, was said to be devastated by the experience. As a result, there were no more televised presidential debates for three election cycles. Lyndon Johnson refused to participate against Barry Goldwater in 1964, and Richard Nixon declined to participate versus Hubert Humphrey in 1968, and again versus George McGovern in 1972. The next televised debate would not appear until then President Gerald Ford debated former Governor Jimmy Carter in 1976.

Boomers had a front row seat in their living rooms for this historic series of events. Mister Boomer certainly recalls those first TV debates, and remembers having to write about them in Civics class in school. How about you, boomers? Do you remember the first televised presidential debate you watched with your family?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *