As we often say here at misterboomer.com, the Boomer Generation years were historic ones not only for boomers, but for the entire world. This week we will elect a president, and the recent televised debates may play a role in the election of that president. Yet many boomers will recall that the very first televised presidential debate aired in the days of our youth.
It was 1960. President Dwight D. Eisenhower was finishing his second term, and his Vice President, Richard Nixon, was the Republican candidate put forward to take his place. The Cold War was getting colder by the day and, adding to the chill, the Soviets achieved the first victories in the Space Race. Change was in the air with many social issues, as the American public was looking at civil rights, the future of Social Security and, fresh off a multi-year military engagement in Korea, the possibility loomed large for U.S. involvement in a little-known land called Vietnam. In short, the country was looking for a strong leader to navigate the changing times.
The Democrats nominated John F. Kennedy, the then one-term U.S. Senator from Massachusetts, as their candidate. It was a long and bitterly fought campaign, and heading into September, Nixon held a slight lead in national polls. The two parties agreed on four televised debates, the first of which aired on September 26, 1960.
It is estimated that 88% of U.S. households had televisions in 1960, and more than 70 million tuned in to the debate. By all accounts, the 43-year old Senator looked tanned and confident in front of the TV cameras. By contrast, Nixon appeared pale and sweaty. He had recently experienced a hospital stay after injuring his knee on a campaign stop in North Carolina. After losing 20 pounds, he looked sickly and frail. To make his appearance matters worse, Nixon chose to wear a light gray suit which helped him to blend into the debate stage’s background on black & white TV, while Kennedy’s dark suit offered a higher contrast against the neutral backdrop. Both candidates had refused makeup, but under the hot television lights, Nixon began to sweat profusely. As the debate continued, beads of sweat were visible in the TV close-ups.
Mister Boomer remembers watching that debate with his family. As usual for boomers, there was one black & white TV permanently stationed in the living room, so TV viewing was always a family affair. He remembers writing in a school journal that week how the sweat beaded up on Nixon’s upper lip. Being a decade away from voting age, Mister B was hardly up on the issues of the day, but he knew what he saw: Kennedy answered forcefully and directly into the camera, while Nixon fumbled his speech and his eyes strayed left and right. Some say Nixon’s side glances and appearance are what gave him the nickname, “Tricky Dick,” which came back to haunt him years later during Vietnam protests while he was president.
Before 1960 television was mainly thought of as an entertainment medium. The late 1950s brought about the concept that television could be used as an educational medium for children and now, with national candidates debating on live TV, it was becoming a place for serious political discourse.
While the November election saw Kennedy win by only a slight popular vote of less than one percent, he had a substantial Electoral College victory. A week later, Kennedy himself said it was the TV that helped him “turn the tide.” Some historians say it was the success of the debate that gave President Kennedy the confidence to reject the advice of his Joint Chiefs of Staff during the Cuban missile crisis in October of 1962. They had recommended military action against the Soviets. Instead, Kennedy took to the airwaves to plead his case to the world, and set up the now-famous naval “quarantine” that led to a mutually satisfactory diplomatic solution.
The prospect of facing the cameras was so daunting for Lyndon Johnson that he refused to participate in televised debates with Barry Goldwater in 1964. Nixon, the Republican nominee in 1968 and 1972, was still stinging from his first TV debate appearance and followed Johnson’s lead in refusing to accept the TV invitation. Consequently, the next televised debates would not appear until 1976, when President Gerald Ford agreed to debate Governor Jimmy Carter. Televised debates have been a part of every presidential campaign since.
Before the historic Kennedy-Nixon debate, most Americans only saw their candidates in photos and read about them in newspapers and magazines. These first televised debates changed that forever. Even though Nixon was said to recover from his first appearance in subsequent debates, in 1960 the damage had been done with the American public. From that point on, how a candidate looked, sounded and behaved on TV played an important role in the election of our presidents… and we boomers had a front-row seat.
What do you remember about the Kennedy-Nixon debates, boomers?