Kennedy vs. Nixon: Behind the Scenes, 1960

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Photo of one of the Kennedy-Nixon Debates (National Park Service)

Thanks to CBS, Richard Nixon lost his first presidential election six weeks before Election Day – at least according to his running mate, Henry Cabot Lodge Jr.

“That son of a bitch just cost us the election,” said Lodge on September 26, 1960. His rather succinct judgment was shared by many in the GOP after watching Nixon’s performance in the first televised presidential debate in American history that same evening.

Render your own judgment on the debates as the Kansas City Public Library hosts The Great Debates Revisited, a series of free public events pairing the original debate footage with commentary and context provided by visiting experts.

Nixon made a historic miscalculation when he agreed to debate Massachusetts Sen. John F. Kennedy four times for the benefit of television audiences. At that time, in September 1960, Nixon was favored to take the White House. He was the distinguished establishment candidate and intended successor of Eisenhower (who arguably hurt the Nixon campaign more than he helped) with the backing and resources of the whole Republican political party.

Kennedy presented as quite the opposite – a callow youth (although four years younger than Nixon), his candidacy made possible by cash rather than credibility. In fact, the liberal wing of the Democratic Party spent the summer hoping Adlai Stevenson would seize the mantle of party leadership, a situation that (in part) inspired Eleanor Roosevelt to initiate a barely civil public squabble with Kennedy.

For all these reasons, Nixon felt confident. But Nixon also considered himself a master of the TV medium ever since his so-called “Checkers” speech salvaged his career in 1952. According to some sources, Nixon thought that he would so dominate the first of these presidential debates that Kennedy would withdraw from the remaining debates – if not the election as a whole.

That didn’t happen. The first debate bolstered the Kennedy campaign, as described in Theodore H. White’s book The Making of the President 1960:

Any reporter who followed the Kennedy campaign remembers still the quantum jump in the size of crowds that greeted the campaigning Senator from the morrow of the first debate, the morning of Tuesday, September 27th, when he began to campaign in northern Ohio. His crowds had been growing for a full seven days before the debates, but now, overnight, they seethed with enthusiasm and multiplied in numbers, as if the sight of him, in their homes on the video box, had given him a “star quality” reserved only for television and movie idols.

In the subsequent debates, Nixon performed well. He began listening to the media consultants on his campaign staff (whom he had previously ignored on those few occasions he allowed them to speak) and changed his debating style, from “me-too” cordiality to a more aggressive posture that scored him points. Nixon is actually considered the winner of the third debate, while some would award the second debate to Nixon also. But the damage was already done.

Voters saw both candidates side by side and rather than looking weak or dangerous in comparison, Kennedy looked like a candidate that most voters wanted to elect. A CBS poll found that four million voters – 6 percent of the electorate – said the debates were the most important factor in determining their votes; of these four million citizens, they turned out almost 3 to 1 for Kennedy. In an election decided by little more than 100,000 votes, the debates are often seen as a crucial element in the Kennedy victory.

-- Paul Smith

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