On Sept. 26, 1960, Senator John F. Kennedy stepped onto a CBS soundstage in Chicago, Illinois for the first-ever televised presidential debate. Cool and collected, the future president no longer needed to rehearse the series of questions and answers he had prepared with his senior staff that morning.1 He was on the precipice of sealing the election with a charismatic, intimate performance that would change the way future presidential campaigns treated the American electorate.2
Yet, Kennedy’s performance that night wasn’t the first example of his innovative approach to campaigning. The young Cape Codder was a national celebrity, whose family and fortune dominated media coverage throughout the campaign, as this famous Life Magazine coverage demonstrates3:
Beyond the fact of the public’s fascination with his personal life, though, Kennedy’s television commercials also showed his flair for connecting with Americans on an intimate level, as this example reveals:
(Check out these videos from The Living Room Candidate for more commercials if you really want to see the difference between Kennedy and Nixon’s approaches.)
But back to the debate.
Kennedy’s opponent, Vice President Richard Nixon, had arrived in Chicago late the night before the debate and thus hadn’t had the chance to formally prepare.4 What’s more, he was visibly exhausted after a non-stop two week stretch of campaigning, and he had been woken up early that morning to give a series of speeches to hostile union groups in the Chicago area.
If that wasn’t enough, Nixon re-injured his knee when he banged it on the car door on his way into the CBS studio. In that moment, his fatigue shone through briefly, as his face turned “white and pasty.”5 Pausing, the Veep collected himself before heading into the studio, where he would again be unable to hide that fatigue under the scrutiny of the bright lights and video cameras.
Nixon was about to demonstrate how outdated issues had become in media-driven elections.6
While Nixon bested Kennedy on the issues that day, a conclusion attested to by the fact that radio listeners overwhelmingly believed Nixon to have been the debate’s victor, he was unable to connect to the audience, often appearing uncomfortable, and rarely looking into the camera. Kennedy, on the other hand, was a master showman who spoke in plain language while staring directly into the camera.7
If Kennedy had not out-debated Nixon, he had won over the hearts and minds of his audience and he realized which of those two tasks was more important. This is a lesson every candidate since him has taken seriously, for better or worse.
Watch the video of that first debate below. You’ll be surprised how clear it is that Nixon is so uncomfortable and JFK so at ease. In historian Theodore White’s words, Kennedy:
…was calm and nerveless in appearance. The Vice-President, by contrast, was tense, almost frightened, at turns glowering and, occasionally, haggard-looking to the point of sickness. Probably no picture in American politics tells a better story of crisis and episode than that famous shot of the camera on the Vice-President as he half slouched, his “Lazy Shave” [make-up] power faintly streaked with sweat, his eyes exaggerated hollow of blackness, his jaw, jowls, and face drooping with strain.8
1. Theodore White, The Making of the President 1960 (Harper Perennial Political Classics), (Washington, D.C.: Harper Perennial, Reissue 2009), 312↩
2. Ibid., 323; 321↩
4. White, Making of the President, 313.↩
5. Ibid., 313.↩
6. Ibid., 320.↩
7. Ibid., 315.↩
8. Ibid., 316.↩