When Kennedy Met Nixon: The Real Story

Fifty years ago today, the “Great Debate” between Vice President Richard M. Nixon, the Republican nominee for president, and Senator John F. Kennedy, the Democratic nominee, attracted 70 million viewers — the largest audience in American history for any political event.

Six myths have persisted throughout the innumerable reports on this historic confrontation. As someone who helped Kennedy prepare and negotiate the terms for the Chicago debate, I’d like to set the half-century-old record straight.

1. “Nixon won on radio,” where the audience could not see his haggard, tense appearance (resulting from his recent hospitalization for a knee injury), his perspiration-streaked face and his nervously shifting eyes. My friend Herb Klein, Nixon’s press secretary, blamed television for Nixon’s defeat — to which I should have replied: “The fault, dear Brutus, was not in the stars, just one of them.”

For the second debate in Washington, Nixon’s handlers insisted on a cooler studio (it seemed to me below freezing!) and more Nixon reaction shots (which we welcomed). Radio listeners, too few in comparison to make a “win” meaningful, could still hear the vice president’s surprising reluctance to disagree with or even answer Kennedy on many points, instead dwelling on a boring comparison of Eisenhower’s and Truman’s statistics, in a futile attempt to present himself as a “new Nixon.” Like a college debater, he defensively addressed Kennedy, while Kennedy addressed the nation and its competition with the Soviet Union.

2. “The debate did not change enough votes to make a difference.” By emphasizing that “the question is which point of view and party do you want to lead the country,” Kennedy did firm up his support among Democrats previously dubious about his age and religion, especially in the South, and increase his standing among independents who knew too little about him.

The next day in Ohio we sensed the result when the conservative Democratic senator, Frank Lausche, decided to show up for the motorcade, which attracted a record number of spectators along the route, including an extraordinary number of female “leapers” (young women who jumped to see Kennedy as his car passed). Kennedy did not “clinch” the election on debate night, as Don Hewitt, who directed the broadcast, later maintained. On Election Day, however, in a closely contested popular vote, Kennedy’s performance made all the difference.

3. “Kennedy was nervous,” facing the more experienced Nixon, who was famous for out-debating Nikita Khrushchev, the Soviet leader. In fact, Kennedy — who had no debate coach and almost never rehearsed — arrived in Chicago the day before the debate and, after a long morning reviewing potential questions and issues in the sunlight on his hotel roof (his TV tan, contrary to reports, was not from campaigning in California), was sufficiently relaxed to nap. (Nixon, by contrast, had holed up for the weekend in a hotel suite with a debate coach.)

Of course, Kennedy never agreed with those who believed that all he had to do was show up. He later said in Minnesota: “It’s easier playing Harvard after you’ve played Ohio State — Nixon may have debated Khrushchev, but I had to debate Hubert Humphrey in the primaries.”

Who was nervous? Although we acceded to the request of the Nixon representatives at our earlier planning sessions with the networks that the candidates be seated farther apart, the vice president still seemed unnerved by Senator Kennedy’s much smoother delivery; and for the third debate, in New York, Nixon participated from Los Angeles.

4. “Presidential campaign debates are a pillar of the democratic system.” True, they can increase voter interest, education and turnout. But that’s about all we can expect of them. Presidents and candidates don’t (or shouldn’t) make important decisions in two-and-a-half minute responses and four-minute closing statements. Nor do these joint press interviews test the candidates’ judgment, as the actual Lincoln-Douglas debates did more than a century earlier.

5. “The networks’ initiation of the four debates in this series signaled a statesmanlike change in their traditional hostility to providing free time for political candidates.” Although the networks have fortunately continued to grant time for debates in nearly every presidential election since 1960, they still require each presidential campaign to raise enormous sums of money in order to present their candidates and respective cases on television to the voters, facilitating and exemplifying the pattern of corruption that has long stained the American political system.

6. “It was style over substance, with Kennedy winning on delivery and looks.” In fact, there was far more substance and nuance in that first debate than in what now passes for political debate in our increasingly commercialized, sound-bite Twitter-fied culture, in which extremist rhetoric requires presidents to respond to outrageous claims.

Though it seemed at the time to be a battle between two opposing worldviews, the truth is that the two candidates did not vastly differ in that first debate. And while Kennedy would probably find a home in today’s Democratic Party, it is unlikely that Nixon would receive a warm welcome among the Tea Party.

Ted Sorensen, a special counsel, speechwriter and adviser to President John F. Kennedy.