So, with America watching, did Vice President Richard Nixon destroy his chances of becoming president because of makeup and wardrobe malfunctions? Nixon was a skilled debater, but John F. Kennedy was not without speaking skills of his own.
Of Kennedy's performance during the first debate on September 26, 1960, Theodore Sorenson states, “His rapid-style delivery crowded more facts and arguments into each severely limited time period than Nixon could answer.” Robert Dallek observes that the first debate made a definite impression on the American audience, though possibly a false one:
Although polls and larger, more enthusiastic crowds encouraged the belief that Kennedy had won the first debate, [Kennedy] knew it would be folly to take a lead for granted. And by contrast with TV viewers, the radio audience thought that Nixon had defeated Kennedy, demonstrating how important the contrasting visual images were before the camera.
Nixon himself was quick to discover the effect of appearance on viewership. In his memoir RN he records:
It is a devastating commentary on the nature of television as a political medium that what hurt me the most in the first debate was not the substance of the encounter between Kennedy and me, but the disadvantageous contrast in our appearances. After the program ended, callers, including my mother, wanted to know if anything was wrong, because I did not look well.
The margin of defeat in the 1960 election was thin. However, the man who would eventually become the thirty-seventh president of the United States did not concede that the 1960 debates, of which the final three carried lesser audiences than the first, were the pivotal moment. “To ascribe defeat or victory to a single factor in such a close contest is at best guesswork and oversimplification,” Nixon wrote.
An interesting aside to the four debates was the inadequacy of the actual debate panelists, who were members of the press. Sorensen states:
In all four joint appearances, the press panelists—with some notable exceptions—were the least effective performers. Their unimaginative questions were increasingly but ineptly aimed at tripping a candidate or creating a headline instead of eliciting specific issues and information. They rarely had continuity in a single debate but became repetitious in the course of all four. Nor did two-and-a-half-minute answers permit any real debating.
Oddly, the tactic that Sorensen says the press encouraged—forcing the candidate to speak in printable, evocative sound-bites (as we have come to call them)—is a strategy preferred by the modern candidates (i.e., Lloyd Bentsen’s “Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy” or Ronald Reagan’s “Ask yourself, 'Are you better off now than you were four years ago?’”). Sometimes, however, what worked in the sound bite turned around to bite the candidate or officeholder at a later date.
- Warren Perry, Catalog of American Portraits, National Portrait Gallery
Robert Dallek, An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy (New York: Little Brown, 2003).
Richard M. Nixon, RN: The Memoirs of Richard Nixon (New York: Grossett and Dunlap, 1978).
Theodore Sorensen, Kennedy (New York: Harper & Row, 1965).
Richard Milhous Nixon, 1913-1994 / Bernard Safran (1924-1995) / Oil on masonite, 1960 / National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; gift of Time magazine
John Fitzgerald Kennedy, 1917-1963 / Shirley Seltzer Cooper (1919-1999) / Pastel on paper, 1961 / National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Smithsonian Institution; gift of Ted Cooper