Tonight’s first debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump falls on the anniversary of the most famous debate in American history: the first Richard Nixon/John F. Kennedy faceoff. Held 56 years ago tonight, it was the first presidential debate ever televised.
More than 70 million Americans watched the debate that night – 2 million more than would cast ballots. Kennedy, the handsome Democratic senator from Massachusetts, looked cool and confident, while Vice President Nixon, sweating profusely under the hot studio lights, looked cadaverous – so much so that it’s been said that a majority of those who watched on television thought that Kennedy had won, while those listening on radio gave Nixon the nod. (Watch the full hourlong faceoff above.)
It was to be a make-or-break moment for both candidates, but Nixon didn’t seem to realize it. Kennedy did — and knowing its importance, he flew to Chicago a few days in advance to meet with Don Hewitt, the producer and director of the debate telecast, to go over the ground rules. They met in a hangar at Chicago’s Midway Airport, and Kennedy was filled with questions for Hewitt, who years later would gain fame as the creator and executive producer of CBS newsmag 60 Minutes.
“He was curious,” Hewitt recalled. “‘Where do I stand?’ ‘Do I stand?’ ‘Do I sit?’ ‘How much time do I have to answer?’ ‘Can he interrupt?’ ‘Can I interrupt?’ He wanted to know everything.”
Nixon, however, thought the debate with Kennedy was going to be a cakewalk. With his naturally mellow, baritone voice, he’d been a champion debater from the fifth grade through college. Kennedy had the good looks and the charm, to be sure; but in a debate format, Nixon felt he couldn’t be beaten. After all, he’d made Nikita Khrushchev, the head of the Soviet Union, look like a fool the year before in their impromptu Kitchen Debate, and Jack Kennedy was no Nikita Khrushchev. And besides, Nixon hadn’t lost an election in 30 years — not since he was in high school.
Rather than waste time with Hewitt going over the debate format, Nixon stuck firmly to his rigorous campaign schedule, trying to make up for lost time after being hospitalized for two weeks that September with an infected knee.
“Nixon I never saw until he arrived that night in the studio,” Hewitt later recalled. “Kennedy knew how important this television appearance would be. Nixon kissed it off as just another campaign appearance.”
On the night of the first televised debate, Nixon arrived before Kennedy at the studios of WBBM-TV, the CBS affiliate in Chicago, and got off to a bad start before the debate even began. Getting out of his limo to go into the studio, Nixon bumped his bad left knee – the one that had landed him in the hospital for two weeks — and nearly keeled over in agony.
“Getting out of the car … he banged his knee so bad he could hardly stand up,” recalled CBS president Frank Stanton. “Nixon looked like warmed-over death. He’d been in the hospital, his color was bad. … He was not a well man.”
Then Kennedy arrived. “I was standing there talking to Nixon, and all of a sudden I noticed out of the corner of my eye Jack Kennedy arrived,” Hewitt recalled. “And it was awesome. Here was this guy running for president of the United States who looked like a matinee idol: well-tailored, well-tanned, in command of himself. … I guess I’d never seen a matinee idol president before.”
Nixon, still nursing his re-injured left knee, was sitting in a chair beneath a large boom-microphone when Kennedy walked onto the stage. Nixon leapt to his feet to greet his rival, but hit his head hard on the overhead microphone.
“It sounded like somebody dropped a watermelon,” Stanton said. “It was terrible.”
About an hour before airtime, Hewitt asked Nixon and Kennedy if they’d like some makeup for the cameras. He’d brought one of the best makeup artists in the business, Frances Arvold, to Chicago for just that purpose.
“I said, ‘Would you like some makeup?’” Hewitt recalled. “Kennedy, who didn’t need any, said, ‘No, thank you, not really.’ Nixon, who needed makeup, also said no. I’m convinced he didn’t want history to record that that night he was made up and Kennedy wasn’t. So they took him back in an office and the guys that were with him, his handlers, made him up with something called Shave Stick, to cover his beard stubble — and badly. He looked awful.”
Just before the debate was about to start, as Kennedy and Nixon took their places onstage, Hewitt looked at the two candidates on camera and was shocked by what he saw.
“Kennedy looked great. Nixon looked terrible,” Hewitt recalled. “So I called Frank Stanton into the control room, and I said, ‘Frank, you better look at this.’ He took one look and he called in a guy named Ted Rogers, who was Nixon’s television adviser. And Stanton said, ‘Are you satisfied with the way your candidate looks?’ And Rogers said, ‘Yeah, we think he looks great.’ So Stanton took me out in the hall and said: ‘It’s none of our business. That’s the way they want it.’ … And we put them on that night, and that’s all anybody remembers about that night is makeup.”
That first televised encounter focused on domestic issues, and the main thrust of Kennedy’s remarks that night was that America “can do better.”
“The question before the American people is: Are we doing as much as we can do?” Kennedy asked, looking straight into the camera. “Are we as strong as we should be? Are we as strong as we must be if we’re going to maintain our independence, and if we’re going to maintain and hold out the hand of friendship to those who look to us for assistance, to those who look to us for survival? This is a great country, but I think it could be a greater country; and this is a powerful country, but I think it could be a more powerful country.”
“I’m not satisfied,” he said, going on to cite several key areas of American life that needed improvement. “I think we can do better. I don’t want the talents of any American to go to waste.”
Kennedy’s charm, ease and striking good looks might have won the debate and won over many undecided voters that night, but it was his powerful words — heralding a call to action and an embrace of the civil rights struggle then sweeping the country — that would win the hearts and votes of millions of black, Hispanic and poor white Americans.
Nixon, counterpunching with facts and figures, argued that America was moving forward on all fronts and had seen much more progress during the Eisenhower/Nixon administration than during the previous administration of Democrat Harry Truman.
“When we compare these two records,” Nixon said, staring earnestly into the camera, “I think we find that America has been moving ahead.” He went on to point out that more schools, hospitals and highways had been built in the past 7 1/2 years than during the Truman administration, and that wages and prices had also improved.
“Now, this is not standing still,” Nixon said. “But, good as this record is, may I emphasize it isn’t enough. A record is never something to stand on; it’s something to build on. And in building on this record, I believe that we have the secret for progress—we know the way to progress.”
For all his talk about progress, however, Nixon really was trumpeting the status quo, urging Americans who had prospered in the 1950s to embrace a candidate who would extend those good times into the new decade.
It was a momentous night that changed the course of American history. And perhaps, 56 years from now, historians will be saying the same thing about tonight’s debate.