I was at the tender age of eight-years-old when my mind became infected with American Presidential politics. I had been suffering from a bad case of poison ivy as a result of a Cub Scout hike, so mom told be to lay back on the living room sofa. It was the evening of September 26, 1960. Dad was, and remains, a conservative Republican and enjoyed following political candidates and events. Evidently, dad had been anticipating the evening’s teevee offerings.
I was looking forward to watching “The Andy Griffith Show” that night, too. However, when dad switched on the teevee, I found out that my favorite program had been preempted. Dad told me that the two men who wanted to be the next President had been scheduled to discuss the issues instead. I was non-plussed.
I remember very little about the four debates, I think I only watched the first one. For some reason, now long-forgotten, I was miffed at dad. Of course, he was a Nixon man, so my young, contrarian self secretly hoped Kennedy would win the fight.
The only aspects of the debate I still remember are the visual appearances of the two men. John F. Kennedy looked movie star handsome. He looked relaxed and in control, his face was smiling and appeared very friendly. Richard M. Nixon reminded me of our school’s unpopular principal. Nixon looked kind of sick and pale. His face showed a “5:00 Shadow” so he looked like a frightening robber to me.
As I found out many years later, Mr. Kennedy had prepared himself well, both mentally and physically. His speech writer had drilled Kennedy on possible questions, this gave Kennedy that confident look. The Democrat had also thought to take in some sunbathing beforehand, too. This greatly enhanced his already handsome face.
Nixon, on the other hand, had been on the campaign trail almost up to the time of the debate. He had also been recovering from a hospitalization. Nixon had refused to wear makeup for the show. He also had chosen to wear a drab, grey business suit for his appearance. In that Nixon was also perspiring profusely, his image also suffered. The contrast between the sickly, dishonest appearing Republican and the vibrant, cheerful Democrat was quite stark.
The public reaction to America’s very first televised Presidential debate was mixed. To the viewers of the program, the Democrat won, hands-down. To people who only listened on the radio, the opinions were mixed according to party affiliation.
Before the debates, John Kennedy was an unknown quantity. He seemed young and inexperienced. He was also a Roman Catholic. These two factors counted against him in the campaign. Meantime, Richard Nixon was older. He was also the incumbant Vice-President of the fairly popular Dwight Eisenhower.
The numbers of Americans who had television sets in their homes had risen from 11% in 1950 up to 88% in 1960. Estimates of viewership, on September 26th, were estimated at around 74,000,000. Political pundits say that the first debate was the most important one, because it enjoyed the most exposure ahead of the other three. The pundits largely agreed that the election was won on the merits of that first televised debate. In an interview shortly after the election, John Kennedy, himself, said, “It was the TV, more than anything else, that turned the tide.”
Even though the televised debate had made a huge impact on Presidential campaigning, debates on teevee went on hiatus for several years. Lyndon Johnson felt unconfident and somewhat intimidated by television so he refused to debate Barry Goldwater on the tube. Richard Nixon was reluctant to repeat his ill-fated experiences for either the 1968 or the 1972 office runs.
The second series of debates finally took root in 1976 when President Gerald Ford agreed to debate the Democratic candidate, James Carter. Ever since then, the debates have been an expected and accepted part of every campaign.
The Blue Jay of Happiness says that the public usually does judge a book by its cover.