Saturday, January 20, 2024

Memories of the First Televised Presidential Debate

By Gil Tisnado

I was thinking back sixty-four years ago when I was in sixth grade; We were given the homework assignment of watching the very first televised presidential debate. It probably didn’t have to be assigned, since nearly every family in our neighborhood would be watching. It was a very big deal.

I learned yesterday that JFK and Nixon were actually “friendly rivals.” They weren’t close friends; however, Nixon was invited to JFK’s wedding in 1953. Much has been written of how much better Kennedy looked than Nixon on the first debate. Kennedy understood that TV was a visual medium and used it to his advantage. On the day of the debate, Kennedy worked on his tan and listened to Peggy Lee records. Nixon, on the other hand, had just spent three weeks in the hospital with a badly inflamed knee and had made several campaign appearances around town. While JFK was tan and rested, Nixon was pale and gaunt from his hospital stay—and this would cost him votes.

Being ten years old and soon to be eleven, I thought that JFK was the coolest of the dudes, and based on appearances alone, he should be president. I do remember that after President Eisenhower, who was a very old seventy at the time, both Nixon and JFK seemed relatively young for adults. (Nixon was 47 and JFK was 43.) At school, we held campaign rallies and mock debates. The moderators were two classmates playing Chet Huntley and David Brinkley (the two biggest names in broadcasting outside of Walter Cronkite.) As a retired teacher, I can now fully appreciate what a wonderful civics lesson this was.

After watching the Trump/Biden debate, I went back and watched YouTube videos from the JFK/Nixon debates. It was a fascinating exercise. My takeaway from seeing these videos were how damn smart and articulate both candidates were. I can now understand why the 1960 presidential election was so close. They really were two brilliant men. But more than that, there was such a sense of civility, decorum, and mutual respect. No talking over each other, mugging for the camera, eye rolling, or name-calling—but simply presenting their vision for the future of our country.

I think before the next debate that our current presidential candidates should watch these master classes in debate. Plus, it wouldn’t hurt if they also played some Peggy Lee records!

No comments:

Post a Comment