JFK vs. Nixon – The First TV Debate

It is hardly contested among experts that the four TV debates between Kennedy and Nixon played a crucial role for the election results of 1960. Some might even consider the first encounter, in September, a turning point in the struggle to win the people’s favor. This is only logical if it was indeed not so much the contents that decided the election than the contrastive personalities, or more precisely: their medialization – the candidates’ image. Whereas Kennedy succeeded in breathing youthful freshness and a national spirit of optimism into his public reputation, Nixon had to wrestle constantly with his abrasive, as he called it himself, »assassin image.«


The effect might well have waned by the night of the election, but we can, with some accuracy, establish the immediate impression the verbal sparring matches unfolded on the electorate. Both radio listeners and TV viewers were interviewed after the first encounter which candidate they regarded as the winner of the confrontation – and the comparison, in particular, is conclusive in this case: Those who followed the duel at their radios commonly assessed the debate as a draw, or even conceded a win to Nixon; those, though, that witnessed the audiovisual spectacle of how not only Kennedy and Nixon themselves spoke, but also outfits and gestures, camera positions and spotlights, mostly saw Kennedy as the victor. How come this difference? Provided we omit content and sound in answering this question, i.e. everything that radio and TV broadcast have in common, what is left to us is to point to the powers of TV pictorial language. 


I will only point out two aspects here. First: differences in the duellists’ outward appearance. Even to such trivia as the shirt color experts ascribe significance – the overall impression, so the comments imply, is the sum of details. Bearing in mind this very sensitivity of his audience to the little things, Kennedy dispatched his aides only shortly before the show to fetch him a blue shirt to replace the white one he was wearing. Nixon either hadn’t been warned of the scenery’s light gray – as chance would have it, he was wearing light gray. Now he didn’t react as cleverly as his opponent, though. The upshot was a JFK in pleasant contrast next to a Nixon looking fairly blurry against the studio backdrop. And Nixon had yet one more problem: his five o’clock shadow – according to the commentators, an absolute no-go for a would-be president, in any case back then in 1960. For his next TV performances, his spin doctors were to equip him with more effective make-up. On September 26, however, they had settled for Lazy Shave, a light powder for men with a heavy growth in the afternoon. This scheme succeeded only moderately; his beard showed through and, for good measure, the powder proved quite vulnerable to sweat. Presumably, hardly any one was going to infer political competence or lack thereof from these, strictly speaking, superficial observations. Anyway, from a future president, and hence the personified figurehead of the nation, many might have expected some more care about his appearance.


Second: (body-)linguistic orientation. Already in his initial statement Kennedy showed an awareness that, what he and Nixon were to declare that night, didn’t speak to those present in the studio, the campaign assistants, reporters and TV makers, but the Americans glued to their domestic TV sets. He used, as the contemporary commentator Theodore H. White notes with slight irony, each question to address an appeal to the nation. Nixon, by contrast, remained arrested in the space-time continuum of the studio. His knowing that the cameras represented millions of potential voters didn’t have an obvious effect on his performance. Most of the time he sought the dialogue with Kennedy and the journalists, and thus relegated the viewer to the role of a passive observer. For Kennedy, the debate reinforced his image of the people’s motivator, a young, unspent politician, who neither intended to stand in the way of change nor shrunk back from setting out for new frontiers himself. 


For Nixon, the first debate went unexpectedly bad. In fact, he had been very confident about September 26. Some might say, it was arrogance that prevented him from preparing thoroughly on the day of the duel, in contrast to JFK, who came together with his closest advisors one last time. Nixon seemingly remembered vividly his 1952 campaign which had brought him very positive experiences with TV cameras. However, the direct TV confrontation of the two major candidates for president reached the status of an American electioneering custom as an absolute novelty in 1960. Also for the Republican candidate, then, the terrain that was opening up now was entirely new. Nixon’s certainty about his own media qualities ultimately proved too trustful. Even if, for the progression of this first and the following three debates as well as the respectively subsequent evaluations by the audience, factors played a role that evaded the candidates’ influence, we can establish: Kennedy showed a far better understanding of how the medium television works. We might think it too daring to elevate a single night of the electioneering period to the significance of a »turning point.« At least we need to take into account, however, that 115 million Americans (White) watched one or more debates at home. Hence, an explication for the election results of 1960 can by no means ignore the »TV factor.«