It was seen by 70 million viewers. It was the first time it was broadcast on TV. And the Democrat was victorious.
John Kennedy was tanned. Rested. Richard Nixon was wearing the wrong color suit. I was nervous. And so pale that his mother thought he was ill. On September 26, 1960, 70 million viewers sat in front of their televisions to watch the first presidential debate of American history through the “silly box.” And the picture it was crucial.
The two candidates for president of the United States for the Democratic and Republican parties would face the merciless questions of four journalists from the main news networks in the country. Listening to them on the radio was one thing. But see them was another.
The debate was not only historic because of its television broadcast. There, located in their places, with the moderator Howard K. Smith in the middle, were who would be two myths of 20th century politics: the then senator JFK and Richard Nixon, who started off with the advantage of being the incumbent vice president.
Nixon did not do homework. He showed his disappointment and even contempt for a television that was just taking its first steps. But that was not the greatest of his sins. The big mistake was refuse to put on makeup for cameras. He appeared pale before the perfect tan of a blond young Kennedy, who drew sighs.
Kennedy, pure presence, won the debate, although those who heard him on the radio gave Nixon the winner. Image and live TV did the magic.
A key key had been the color of the suit. The golden rule was “in front of the cameras wear a dark suit.” Kennedy used one. Nixon, one light grey.
They were black and white, in every respect, on a TV that showed no more nuances than those two colors.
While Kennedy dominated on a light background, Nixon disappeared, fading into the background.
Both came running with the polls to the neck, with a Nixon climbing in the numbers. And the debate gave JFK a 48-43 lead, showing that these duels influence on the voter, although that effect it doesn’t always last too.
The debate took place at the WBBM studios in Chicago.
Kennedy and Nixon would meet again in a total of four debates, with diverse outcomes. Nixon fared better in the second and third.
On October 21 they met to discuss foreign policy issues at the last and fourth debate, which Kennedy stayed with.
While the two marked the era of the beginning of television debates, it was not the first time they debated.
They had already had their “face to face” more than a decade before, in 1947, when they were barely emerging figures of their parties.
At that time they were legislators who gathered in Pittsburg for a legislative “showdown”. They traveled by train from Washington and debated at a club in the working-class city of McKeesport. They argued over labor law.
Nixon won. And as the Nixon Foundation describes it, that was the “Great Pennsylvania Debate.”