Kennedy-Nixon debate looks different today


September 26, 1990|By Steve McKerrow

Ah, memory. How selective it can be. In America's cultura recall, Richard M. Nixon came off disastrously compared to rival John F. Kennedy in the 1960 presidential debates, marking the emergence of a "telegenic" style as a principal attribute for political office.

Nixon looked shifty and nervous, jowly and unshaven, it was said, while Kennedy was smooth and charismatic. The debates gave Kennedy the election, it has been concluded.

In reality, however, the contrast was far more subtle, as cable viewers may be surprised to find in a fascinating bit of archival programming tonight. "As It Happened: The Great Debate 1960," at 8 o'clock on the Arts & Entertainment basic cable service, presents with minimal commentary the first Kennedy-Nixon debate, which occurred 30 years ago tonight.

Nixon does not look half as bad as is commonly remembered, nor Kennedy quite as smooth. If anything, Nixon seems to have better command of his material, which is why host John Chancellor notes that radio listeners at the time said Nixon had won the meeting.

But Kennedy, it is clear, had better command of the medium of TV which, with this debate, offered the candidates "the largest audience that had ever been assembled to listen to a political event."

As Chancellor notes, Kennedy looked directly into the camera, addressing home viewers with his positions, not necessarily countering Nixon's. "Only you can decide what you want," he says in summary. And while the relatively crude camera setup focused mostly on the speakers, when a shot caught Kennedy away from the podium he was listening intently, taking notes.

By contrast, Nixon addressed Kennedy's arguments point by point, in classic debate style. Thus his connection with the camera, and the voters out there, was not so intimate as JFK's. He also had recently been ill, and the camera shows a trace of perspiration on his chin. Caught in his seat while Kennedy spoke, Nixon seemed uncomfortable and distant.

What did they say? Over the weekend, on "A&E's Revue" program, host Jack Perkins challenged guest Don Hewitt, CBS producer of the 1960 debates (later to become producer of ''60 Minutes''), to recall a single issue of the campaign which the candidates talked about. Neither could remember much of substance.

Yet what is downright stunning 30 years later is the similarity of the debate topics to the issues of the most recent presidential campaign. Kennedy and Nixon discuss the "national debt" (not yet called the "deficit"), the problems of public education and underpaid teachers, the shortage of scientists and engineers in society and the problems of poverty.

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