Kennedy vs. Nixon - Live from Chicago

Illinois is known for Presidents and for debates. Specifically, the four Chief Executives who came from the Prairie State and made history in the Oval Office, and the most well-known series of debates in American history: the contests on the 1858 U.S. Senate campaign trail which launched Abraham Lincoln to national fame.

Where these two come together is also in Illinois: the most famous Presidential debate in American history happened right here in Illinois some 60 years ago this week.

Vice President Richard Nixon entered the 1960 campaign as a well-known and skilled debater. From his years in Congress to his two terms as Vice President, Nixon had found many opportunities to make an impression on the American public. His nationally-televised “Checkers” speech during the 1952 campaign had likely saved his political career, and his 1959 “Kitchen Debate” with Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev had shown Nixon to be a strong spokesman for the American side in the Cold War.

More of an unknown quantity, at least from the perspective of debating skill, was Nixon’s opponent for the Presidency, Massachusetts Senator John F. Kennedy. Elected to Congress the same year as Nixon, and then to the Senate the same year that Nixon won the Vice Presidency, Kennedy was known as a charismatic rising star, but his abilities on a national debate stage were unknown.

The two had actually debated once before, when in 1947 as rookie Congressmen they had traveled together to an event in Pennsylvania to debate a labor bill then pending in Congress. But while these kinds of discussions among members of Congress were not uncommon, Presidential debates were mostly unheard of in the mid-20th century. They had occurred, but on a much smaller scale than we are familiar with today; such as when former Illinois Governor Adlai Stevenson debated Tennessee Senator Estes Kefauver before the Florida primary in 1956.

But by 1960 America was changing dramatically, and this change included our ways of accessing information, and so therefore our political traditions would change that year as well.

In 1950, 11% of all households in the United States owned a television set, amounting to around 4.4 million in total. By 1960 that number had exploded to more than 40 million, or 88% of the nation’s homes. All through the summer, television executives had been seeking a big way to bring the campaign to their medium, what would later be called a “made for TV” moment.

Someone had landed on the idea of hosting a series of Presidential debates, and the negotiations had begun in earnest in September at New York’s Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. After much back-and-forth, the networks and the campaign agreed to four televised debates over the course of the fall.

The first of these four debates would be held in Chicago on September 26, 1960, at the WBBM studio then located at 630 N. McClurg Court in Streeterville. Subsequent debates were held in Washington, New York and one in which Nixon appeared in a studio in New York and Kennedy from Los Angeles (moderator Bill Shadel of ABC was in Chicago).

But it was the first debate, in Chicago, which would go down in history.

Moderated by Howard K. Smith of CBS, and featuring Sander Vanocur of NBC, Charles Warren of the Mutual News Service and Stuart Novins of CBS, the debate was scheduled to last one hour and focus on domestic policy. When it started off at 8:30 p.m. central time (pre-empting a popular program then in its inaugural season, The Andy Griffith Show), between 65 and 70 million Americans were tuned in to one of the three networks carrying the broadcast.

Only one televised event in history up to that point drew a larger crowd: the final game of the previous year’s World Series between the Dodgers and White Sox had garnered 90 million viewers.

Unlike today’s debates, which feature short answers and rebuttals, this first Kennedy-Nixon contest gave candidates much more time to make their case on a question. Each candidate was allowed an eight-minute opening statement. They then had two minutes and 30 seconds to respond to questions, with the option to offer a rebuttal. The debate concluded with a three minute closing statement from each candidate.

But before the cameras even clicked on, Nixon was in trouble. Expectations were high for the Vice President, and anything less than a knockout would be considered a loss. He had already been struck by a series of unlucky events prior to the debate. These would all come together to make that evening in Chicago one of the worst nights ever suffered by a Presidential candidate.

Weeks before the debate, Nixon had smashed his knee into a car door while campaigning in Greensboro, North Carolina. The injury had hobbled him, and then led to an infection which required him to leave the campaign trail for a stay in Walter Reed Army Medical Center outside Washington. Having previously pledged to visit all 50 states in the campaign, Nixon had to make up for the lost time by pushing himself aggressively on the campaign trail through September.

He checked into Chicago’s Pick-Congress Hotel on Sunday night September 25 exhausted and still sick. Instead of spending the day of the debate resting and preparing, Nixon accepted an invitation to speak to the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America in the city that morning, then sequestered himself in his hotel room for the afternoon, seeing no visitors, including his staff who sought to brief him on the debate setup.

Unable to reach their candidate, Nixon’s team had grown increasingly frantic in their requests for adjustments in the last hours before the debate, while the much calmer Kennedy team had asked for no changes to the set. Nixon’s advisers bombarded the set crew at WBBM with requests: move the candidates’ chairs farther apart, bring in podiums, reposition two small spotlights to eliminate the shadows under Nixon’s eyes. Nixon’s bad luck would continue when these delicately-positioned spotlights were bumped by newspaper photographers allowed onto the stage to get still photos of the candidates just before the debate began.

At last Nixon emerged from his room at the Pick-Congress and got into the car for the ride to the studio. An adviser gave him a quick briefing in the car on the composition of the debate stage. Then, to make matters worse, as he got out of the car he hit his knee again and was in pain for the entire evening.

Kennedy was much better attuned to the unique venue of a televised debate. Other than the time he had spent delivering his own address to the carpenters that afternoon, he had spent the day preparing and relaxing in his room at the Ambassador-West Hotel. Now he strode into the studio looking tanned and rested, wearing a dark suit. Nixon by contrast wore a gray suit, his shirt collar hanging loosely around his neck as a result of the weight he had lost in the hospital.

The television lights came on in the studio, and struck another blow against the Vice President. Just hours before the broadcast, as the debate set had been constructed, a fresh coat of paint had been applied and as the minutes ticked down to the opening it was still drying. As it dried it changed color slightly, causing Nixon’s suit to blend into the background on the black-and-white television sets. The rising temperature in the studio caused Nixon to sweat more and more. The Vice President had refused to apply makeup for the cameras; only a thick covering of a product called “Lazy Shave” meant to conceal afternoon stubble; and now he appeared pale on screen, in stark contrast to Kennedy.

The debate started and ran for the full hour, focusing on such topics as farm surpluses, Communism in America, education and social security. Perhaps acknowledging the debate’s host state, Kennedy opened with a Lincoln reference. He came back to Lincoln later on in response to a question about experience. Nixon directed his answers to the panelists, while Kennedy spoke straight to the camera, and through it to the people watching at home. But overall, very little of the debate’s substance is recalled 60 years later.

What would cause the Chicago debate to go down in history was the influence of television: the gaunt, sweating, shifty-eyed Nixon fading into the background, versus the handsome, relaxed, confident Kennedy making his points. A popular legend, disputed to this day, says that radio listeners gave the win to Nixon, while the much larger television audience went to Kennedy.

Perceptions of those attending in person differed from those watching at home, however. On the 50th anniversary of the debate, WBBM reunited those participants still living for a discussion. Vanocur remembered the event differently than the history books.

“It didn’t look that way with your naked eye, what it looked like on television I don’t know,” Vanocur said of the stark contrast in appearance of the two candidates on television. “The rest of the nation was watching and saw it on television and it looked different, particularly Nixon wearing a gray suit in front of a gray drape.”

Kennedy advisor Newton Minow, who participated in the debate negotiations and later served as President Kennedy’s Federal Communications Commission chairman, also shared his reflection on the night.

“Vice President Nixon, who I met later and talked to, I think he regretted very much his decision to participate.”

What is clear is the impact the debate had on the polling. A small lead for Nixon turned into a small lead for Kennedy in the days after the debate. Reporters traveling with Kennedy the next day in Ohio noticed larger crowds coming to see the Senator. In the subsequent debates, Nixon regained his lost weight, applied makeup and was better prepared. But as the old saying goes, “you never get a second chance to make a first impression,” and in this first campaign of the television era, the damage had already been done. The next series of televised Presidential debates would not occur for sixteen years.

Six weeks later Kennedy would defeat Nixon in one of the closest elections in American history, and one with far-reaching implications. The election was so close that many believe it turned on the smallest factor, like that first televised debate. A CBS survey after the election found that 57% of voters said the debates had influenced their vote.

The history of the next two decades, and the world they helped create--from the Bay of Pigs to the Cuban Missile Crisis, Dallas, Civil Rights, Vietnam, the Great Society, the Moon landing, nuclear weapons treaties, Watergate and beyond—were all greatly influenced by that single hour in an Illinois television studio.