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?

Boomers Heard the Answer Was Blowin’ In the Wind

The tremendous outpouring of anger, frustration and ultimate resolve displayed in recent marches that coalesced under the cry of “Black Lives Matter!” strikes an optimistic chord for Mister Boomer. The Boomer Generation was on the cusp of the first marches for Civil Rights, sparking hope in our era that the answers to a multitude of societal questions would soon to be found. Nearly 50 years later, those questions are still being posed, but now, something does appear to be in the wind.

When the first Civil Rights legislation was enacted in 1964, the majority of Baby Boomers were too young to have participated in the movement on their own. For some boomers, it was their parents who brought them along to marches. Others joined in as soon as they became aware in their teens. Songs of our era were filled with calls against social injustices, mixed with peaceful coexistence messaging from the Peace Movement in one seamless blend of things we wanted to change in our society. Boomers of all ages bore witness or marched along with other demonstrators from 1955 to 1973. Nonetheless, even as teens not ready for joining in, boomers were moved by pictures of the marches and violent responses of law enforcement that were broadcast on TV and featured in magazines like Look, Life, Newsweek and Time. We were supposed to be the generation that changed it all. History will be the judge of how much the Boomer Generation was able to accomplish.

One undeniable contribution boomers made to the world was boomer-era music, in all forms. Among the earliest, and most recognizable, of songs that became known as protest songs of the Civil Rights movement, was Blowin’ In the Wind, written by Bob Dylan in 1962. The song’s lyrics give reference to both the Civil Rights and Peace Movements of the day. Yet with the lyrics posing questions like, How many roads must a man walk down/Before you call him a man?, and … how many years can some people exist/Before they’re allowed to be free? the song seemed to offer no hope by stating, The answer, my friend, is blowing in the wind/The answer is blowing in the wind. However, Dylan himself has written that he thought the song was a hopeful one. If the answer was blowing in the wind, then it was discoverable, and to him that meant there was hope.

The first recording of the song was by The New World Singers, a group Dylan had known in his West Village days singing at The Gaslight Cafe. Peter, Paul & Mary recorded it in 1963, and took the song to number two on the charts. Dylan finally recorded it himself in May of 1963 for his second album, Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan.

The song quickly became an anthem of the Civil Rights movement. Around the time he released his version, Bob Dylan sang it at a voter registration rally in Greenwood, Mississippi. On August 28, 1963, the day Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his I Have a Dream speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, Peter, Paul & Mary sang the song into the same microphones. Peter Yarrow sang the song during the March from Selma to Montgomery. Joan Baez, a constant fixture in Civil Rights protests throughout the 1960s, and known for her version of We Shall Overcome, also included Blowin’ In the Wind in her protest performance repertoire.

The song had wide-ranging influence on musicians around the world, including The Beatles and Sam Cooke. Both stated the song changed the style of lyrics they wrote after hearing it. Sam Cooke released, A Change Is Gonna Come, about one year after the release of Blowin’ In the Wind, in February of 1964. It quickly joined Blowin’ In the Wind as an anthem for the Movement. Unfortunately, in December of 1964 Cooke was killed by a motel manager in an incident she claimed was self-defense. The mysterious circumstances surrounding his death are the very type of incident that protestors are calling out today.

Stevie Wonder, himself a new teenager and recording star when the song was released, actually competed on the charts with his Fingertips (Part 2) in 1963. Stevie stopped the song’s momentum to number one, and Peter, Paul & Mary’s version finished in the second spot. Three years later, Wonder released his version of the song, to become the first Black artist to do so. His version topped out at number 9 on the charts.

The list of artists who recorded the song are too numerous to mention, but it covered all music genres and ages, both black and white. It is estimated that hundreds of artists from around the world have pressed their versions. In 2004, it was ranked number 14 on Rolling Stone’s list of 500 Greatest Songs of All Time, and was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1994.

What memories do you recall about Blowin’ In the Wind, boomers? Which versions did you have on record?