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Lundi, 26 Septembre 2011 12:00

Sept. 26, 1960: JFK, Nixon Open the Era of TV Debates

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Sept. 26, 1960: JFK, Nixon Open the Era of TV Debates

1960: In the first televised U.S. presidential debate in history, John F. Kennedy comes off well. His opponent, Richard Nixon, does not. Television instantly emerges as the decisive medium in presidential politics.

It was Kennedy who proposed a series of four nationally televised debates, and Nixon — supremely confident that he could spank the young upstart from Massachusetts — eagerly accepted. It proved to be one of the biggest miscalculations of Tricky Dick’s career.

While Nixon could play the experience card, he was no match for Kennedy’s charisma. And as many a politician has since discovered, with TV, it’s all about style over substance.

The first debate focused on domestic issues, and the two candidates battled on more-or-less equal terms. In fact, to the radio audience that couldn’t see him, Nixon appeared to have won. But the much-larger television audience — 70 million, then the biggest in history — saw it very differently.

Nixon looked haggard, at least partly because he brushed aside advice and appeared before the cameras wearing no makeup. His TV adviser, Ted Rogers, said later that Nixon’s pasty skin tone — the result of a two-week hospital stay following a serious knee injury — and his perpetual 5 o’clock shadow would have benefited from a little makeup, especially when he was pictured alongside a tanned, fit-looking JFK.

Nixon also fidgeted a lot, he was sweating, and his beady eyes darted around nervously. On top of that he wore a gray suit, which blended into the background. Although some of these problems were fixed for the subsequent debates (there wasn’t much that could be done with those beady eyes), the damage had been done.

In one of the closest presidential elections in history, Kennedy won by a little more than 100,000 votes. Many historians believe that without the so-called Great Debates, Nixon would have moved into the White House eight years earlier than he eventually did.

Kennedy-Nixon was the last televised presidential debate until 1976, when Democrat Jimmy Carter took on GOP incumbent Gerald Ford. The incumbent president did well in the first debate, which focused on domestic issues. But he may have lost the election during the foreign policy debate that followed, declaring that “There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe, and there never will be under a Ford administration.”

Given the chance to retract the statement, Ford stuck to his guns. A couple of months later, the American people (even those not of Eastern European descent) packed him off to the golf course.

Since then, televised debates have become a staple of the political landscape. But with the way these things are produced and stage-managed, viewers have to wonder whether they are getting an accurate picture of the candidates, or just an invitation to a beauty pageant.

Source: Various

Photo: Sen. John F. Kennedy (left) debates Vice President Richard M. Nixon in the first televised U.S. presidential debate. Howard K. Smith of CBS News (seated, center background) moderates the debate in the studio of network affiliate WBBM-TV, Chicago. A panel of broadcast journalists faces the candidates. (Courtesy National Park Service)

This article first appeared on Sept. 26, 2008, on which night there was a televised presidential-campaign debate.


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