Monday, Jun. 13, 2011

Richard Nixon, 1960

On the morning of Sept. 26, 1960, John F. Kennedy was a relatively unknown Senator from Massachusetts taking on the incumbent Vice President, Richard Nixon. By the end of the evening, he was a star. It seems Nixon's fatal flub was in failing to recognize the power of the visual image. Pale and underweight from a recent hospitalization, Nixon appeared sickly and sweaty, while Kennedy appeared tanned, calm and confident; he even sent his aide back to his hotel to get him a blue shirt that would look better with the set. As the story goes, those who listened to the debate on the radio thought Nixon won. But those listeners were in the minority. By 1960, 88% of American households had televisions — up from just 11% a decade before. The number of viewers who tuned in to the debate was estimated to be as high as 74 million by Broadcast Magazine, the Nielsen of the day. Nixon performed much better in subsequent debates (and appeared better, thanks to the "milkshake diet" his aides put him on to fatten him up). But the damage had been done. Kennedy went on to narrowly win the election that most say he never would have had a shot at without that first debate.