The “Great Debates,” as they were billed, had attracted enormous attention even before Senator John F. Kennedy and Vice President Richard Nixon stepped in front of the cameras at CBS studios in Chicago. There had never been a true presidential debate prior to 1960, but the two candidates had agreed to square off in four of them during the run-up to Election Day.
Even more groundbreaking was that the meetings would be broadcast on television. Voters had previously known their politicians only as voices on the radio or pictures in the newspaper. Now, for the first time in history, the candidates would have the chance to speak “face-to-face” to the roughly 70 million Americans watching the debates from the comfort of their living rooms.
John F. Kennedy knew the debates could be the shot in the arm that his campaign needed. The 43-year-old Massachusetts senator had emerged from relative obscurity to become the Democratic nominee, but he was still struggling against the perception that he was too inexperienced to be Commander in Chief. He spent the hours before the contest cramming his head with facts and figures and having his aides quiz him on possible debate questions.
Knowing that his face would be beamed to millions of black and white TV sets, he also took a long nap and worked on his tan on the roof of his Chicago hotel. When Kennedy finally arrived at CBS studios on the evening of September 26, he was rested and ready for action. Even Richard Nixon later wrote that, “I had never seen him looking so fit.”
The same could not be said of Nixon. The sitting Vice President had run himself ragged trying to fulfill a campaign promise to visit all 50 states, and had recently spent nearly two weeks in the hospital after banging his knee on a car door and contracting a Staph infection. He showed up at the debate with a 102-degree fever and a sore leg, having whacked his hurt knee a second time on his way into the building. Debate producer Don Hewitt would later say the Republican candidate’s pale complexion and gaunt face made him look “like death warmed over.” Nixon refused to cancel, however, saying that dropping out so late would make him look like a “chicken.”
The debate proceeded as planned later that evening, when moderator Howard K. Smith appeared on Americans’ television screens and announced that the two candidates alongside him “need no introduction.” The topic was domestic issues, and by all accounts, Nixon and Kennedy both held their own. The exchanges rarely got heated, and neither man made any significant missteps while discussing the minimum wage, healthcare, economic growth and the threat of Communism. The New York Times later observed that the evening was “distinguished by a suavity, earnestness and courtesy that suggested that the two men were more concerned about ‘image projection’ to their huge television audience than about scoring debating points.”
But if “image projection” was the goal of the night, there was little doubt that Kennedy came away the victor. The young senator looked confident and alert throughout the debate, and directed his remarks to the camera with an authority that helped sweep away doubts about his age and experience. By contrast, the feverish Nixon came off haggard and anxious. He was seen repeatedly licking his lips and mopping at the sweat beading on his face, and was clad in an ill-fitting grey suit that too closely matched the color of the studio set.
Both candidates had declined the services of a makeup artist before the broadcast, but while Kennedy later had a light coat of cosmetics applied in secret, Nixon opted to cover his five o’clock shadow with a powder called “Lazy Shave.” The product started to run down his cheeks as the hour-long debate wore on, giving him an even more ashen appearance.
“After the program ended, callers, including my mother, wanted to know if anything was wrong,” Nixon later wrote in his memoirs. His running mate, Henry Cabot Lodge, supposedly fumed, “That son of a bitch just cost us the election.”
Not everyone believed Nixon had done poorly. According to one oft-cited survey, people who listened to the debate on the radio tended to call it a draw, while those who saw it on television pronounced Kennedy the clear winner. The survey’s methods have since been called into question, but its general findings were backed up by Howard K. Smith, the debate’s moderator. Smith was sitting behind the candidates during the program and couldn’t see their faces. He initially gave the slight edge to Nixon, but changed his mind after watching a replay. “I could see that Kennedy swept it,” he said in an interview for the Archive of American Television. “He just looked so enchanting.”
Kennedy’s strong showing may have been about more than just looks. He was the more aggressive of the two candidates, and eloquently summarized his leadership philosophy and past achievements in government. Nixon, on the other hand, spent most of the contest on the defensive. The Vice President was known as a fierce debater—he’d famously jabbed his finger into Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev’s chest during their so-called “Kitchen Debate” in 1959—but he toned down his rhetoric on the night after Cabot Lodge urged him to erase his “assassin image.” Instead of going after Kennedy, Nixon spent most of the debate agreeing with him. He even replied with a simple “no comment” when given a chance to rebut one of the senator’s statements. “Kennedy had been the boy under assault and attack by the Vice President as immature, young, inexperienced,” journalist Theodore H. White later wrote. “Now, obviously, in flesh and behavior he was the Vice President’s equal.”
Nixon went on to make a stronger showing in the next three debates against Kennedy. He wore makeup and better-fitting suits, spoke with more authority and fattened himself up with a steady diet of milkshakes. It was all too little too late. When Election Day rolled around on November 8, Kennedy eked out a win by just over 100,000 votes—one of the smallest margins in American history. Many later credited the debates with having given him some much-needed national exposure. Kennedy himself was quoted as saying that “it was the TV more than anything else that turned the tide.”
Historians still argue about how significant the Great Debates really were in deciding the election, but there’s no doubt that the broadcasts marked a turning point in American politics. For better or worse, TV would go on to become an indispensable part of presidential campaigns, permanently altering the ways politicians tried to win voters’ hearts and minds. Presidential debates, meanwhile, took a bit longer to catch on. Having seen how badly Nixon got burned, the major party candidates refused to square off on TV again until 1976.