Lessons From the First TV Debate

When I asked my students which of them planned to vote in November, they all raised their hands. More than half of them then revealed that this would be the first time they would vote in a presidential election. They went on to speak with enthusiasm of the parade of primary debates, especially those that had been organized by YouTube and CNN, to which one student even claimed to have submitted a question. Encouraged by this strong showing of non-apathy, and wanting to do my part to leave no child behind, I asked if they’d like to see the first televised presidential debate. They were game, so I showed it to them.

Many college students have heard of the Kennedy-Nixon debates, but most can’t tell you much more about them beyond the fact that they were between Kennedy and Nixon. But in my class that day was an overachiever eager to volunteer some more specific details about the historic first debate of Sept. 26, 1960. (Only experts and chronic watchers of the History Channel know anything about the second, third and fourth debates.) She proudly proceeded to share with the class the only two pieces of information about the “Great Debate” that have survived in the 48 years since it happened:

1. The fact that Kennedy looked young, confident and handsome compared to a balding, frumpy, sweating Nixon was why most people who saw the debate on television (from 70 to 85 million by most accounts) thought Kennedy won, thus proving that television had forever changed American politics and anyone hoping to be elected from then on would have to look good on TV.

2. One of the reasons Nixon looked bad was because of a sloppy, last-minute make-up job applied to cover his “5 o’clock shadow.”

I had heard these claims, as you probably have, many times before. They circulate in books about the history of broadcasting, in documentaries about the debates, and in the general lore of the modern American presidency. But there’s something about these two pieces of data that always seemed a little fishy to me.

As for the first claim: If television had made it impossible for the frumpy, balding, sweaty candidate to get elected, then why was Nixon able to go on to win not one, but two runs for the presidency? In 1968 and 1972, of course, Nixon was eight and twelve years older (and, one would expect, balder and frumpier) than when he lost in 1960. And if looking good on TV had overtaken the political process so profoundly, then why did Kennedy, who looked a whole lot better than Nixon, only win by such a tiny margin in the popular vote? And how does this theory account for the failure of such pretty young men as, say, John Edwards, to make it to the highest office?

It’s the second claim, though, that I’ve always found the most fascinating. Here’s how the story is usually told: Although CBS provided a professional makeup artist, both Kennedy and Nixon had agreed to go on camera without makeup. This might seem a little strange until we remember that the quiz-show scandals were still fresh in everyone’s mind in 1960 and nobody wanted to appear to be a part of anything that might look fake. Kennedy looked good in his tan, but Nixon had a fast-growing beard, and by the time of the debate that fact was apparently becoming visibly evident. Legend has it that although Nixon refused his staff’s pleadings to use a makeup artist, he did allow an aide to run out and get a can of Lazy Shave powder to cover his 5 o’clock shadow. It didn’t work well under the hot TV lights, and mixed with Nixon’s profuse perspiration to make him look terrible.