PRESIDENTIAL DEBATES

Issue

The first Hilary Clinton-Donald Trump debate falls on Monday, September 26.

By an interesting coincidence, it is the 56th anniversary of the first televised debate of a presidential election in American history. On September 26, 1960, a relatively unknown American senator from Massachusetts confronted the vice president of the United States under President Eisenhower, Richard Nixon of California.

By the end of the evening in the fall of 1960, Kennedy had emerged as a formidable candidate. He was the first Catholic in American history to become president. Nixon, despite his formidable credentials in government and politics, lost the election by a small margin.

But the consequences of that first televised debate have been felt in the many decades since. Indeed, it could be argued that our whole political culture evolved from that significant debate.

In the 1960 battle, Nixon, who perspired heavily under the lights of the television studio in Chicago where the candidates squared off, looked haggard. I remember how we were struck by the contrast between the two relatively young men. Kennedy, the freckle-faced Democratic candidate from New England, seemed smooth and confident. Nixon appeared less confident, although he obviously had a strong grasp of issues. Even though their positions on some major questions were similar, what they projected on the television screen seemed to represent a contrast in personality and character.

Although many people who heard the debate on the radio thought Nixon had won, Kennedy appeared dominant on the little screen.

Much of what we take for granted in the political world of 2016 seems to have had its roots in that far away world of 1960. Political consultants who advise candidates and tell them what to do and how to look became more accepted after the first debate and the debates that followed. You could say that a whole industry developed that was hardly there before, including, ultimately, the pollster and pundits that have dominated this election cycle. And the growth of this industry has, of course, necessitated great expenditures of money and made fundraising as well as television exposure in commercials and debates vital to every campaign.

It was interesting that the political leaders of 1960 realized early on that television might have fundamentally changed the craft and the way to win elections. Thus, former Senator Bob Dole, who was the Republican presidential nominee in 1996 said: "I was listening to it on the radio coming into Lincoln, Kansas, and I thought Nixon was doing a great job. Then I saw the TV clips the next morning and he...didn't look well. Kennedy was young and articulate...and wiped him out."

As has been noted by historians, television was a relatively new medium and most politicians had not mastered how to use it. Kennedy had a natural ability to communicate through television. He looked directly into the camera. Nixon, in addition to having a heavy beard and perspiring under the lights, looked furtively toward the reporters, so he appeared to be avoiding eye contact with the audience.

September 26, 1960, and September 26, 2016--in the span of political history an evolving culture. For Hilary Clinton and Donald Trump, the first debate of this presidential election may be as vital as the debate that made John Kennedy a formidable adversary in the campaign of 1960.

Will the American people be impressed by cosmetics or substance? How will they judge the candidates? How vital will this meeting be to the outcome of the election?

Gabe Pressman
Senior Correspondent at NBC New York

Kennedy-Nixon First Presidential Debate, 1960 https://youtu.be/gbrcRKqLSRw via @YouTube