It’s 26 September 1960. On one side of your screen, a young, handsome and erudite Democrat with everything going for him; on the other, the shaky-looking incumbent vice president defending an eight-year administration against a fresh young challenger. The two men are rendered in black and white against a featureless set, and they’re here to discuss domestic economic and social policy. The nation is rapt.
Watch the footage of Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy’s first TV debate today and it looks almost like something from another planet. No network logos, no shiny glass floor, no interrupting, just an obediently silent audience, and candidates given well over a minute to answer questions about domestic policy direct to camera.
This was the spectacle that greeted the American electorate in the first ever presidential TV debate – a dry and tidy event by today’s standards, but in its own way, all the more riveting for it.
The televisual-election industrial complex had already been growing for years, most famously with the “I Like Ike” ads that helped propel Dwight Eisenhower to the White House in 1952. But unlike other kitschy campaign ephemera like Frank Sinatra’s bizarre JFK-themed reworking of “High Hopes”, the four Kennedy-Nixon debates cemented in place the ritual of pitting the presidential candidates against each other in a series of encounters that can, in theory, decide who clinches the Oval Office.
And so far as popular memory would have it, the first debate in 1960 played a huge role in Nixon’s failure.
In his opening statement, the then-vice president was immediately on the defensive. “The things that Senator Kennedy has said many of us can agree with,” he began.
Where Kennedy was fluent and lucid, Nixon’s prepared remarks used odd, tangled syntax that tripped him up as he spoke. “There is no question but that this nation cannot stand still,” he said. “When we look at these programs, might I suggest that in evaluating them we often have a tendency to say that the test of a program is how much you’re spending”.
Stumbling more and more as the debate went on, he often looked nervous and shifty in cutaway shots, glancing from side to side and curling his lip while Kennedy spoke. Without the benefit of makeup and still underweight after a two-week hospital visit, the pallid vice president failed to regather his composure.
Whether this actually moved the needle in the election is open to question; the same goes for almost every memorable debate moment in the decades since. Nonetheless, it tarnished Nixon’s image forever. So embedded is the memory of a suspicious, shaky Nixon that it was even parodied in The Simpsons as a historic Duff Beer commercial. (“The man never drank a Duff in his life!”)
Ultimately, Kennedy won – but barely. Nixon decided not to insist his extremely narrow loss in 1960 was in fact a theft, secured not by votes but by Kennedy-backing machine politicians in vital states like Illinois and Texas. The national Republican party fought hard to turf up concrete evidence the election was stolen, but failed; Nixon declined to pursue it further. In private, however, he is well-known to have clung to the idea he was defrauded out of the presidency.
Nixon’s career seemed to collapse two years later with his failed run for governor of California. “You don’t have Nixon to kick around any more,” he sniped in a notoriously bitter farewell speech to the press he loathed. But six years later he was back, and this time in the White House, to which he would be re-elected by a landslide (with his own bespoke campaign song) before plunging into ignominy of a depth previously uncharted.
Uncharted, that is, until now.
Like Nixon, Donald Trump is convinced the presidency is being stolen from him, but he hardly keeps that obsession private. Convinced he was cheated out of the popular vote in 2016, he set up a commission to uncover the supposedly rampant fraud; as expected by most outside the White House, nothing was found.
This time around, having consistently trailed Joe Biden in national polls for months, he has stoked up the allegations of fraud to a red-hot level, all but writing off the result months before election day and refusing to guarantee a peaceful transfer of power. And now, almost 60 years to the day since Kennedy and Nixon’s restrained encounter, the president will face off against Joe Biden, whom he maintains is simultaneously cunningly manipulative and irretrievably senile.
But with everything else at work in this almost apocalyptic, pandemic-stricken election, will their long-awaited encounter even matter? Nixon was at least partly undone by showing up to the first ever debate too thin, a little sweaty, and beady-eyed when compared to his dashing young opponent. Mr Trump won the electoral college in 2016 after three debates in which he flailed at the simplest of questions and threatened his opponent with jail. Clearly, the debates aren’t what they used to be.