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    Anecdotal Observations On History & Politics

    Entries in debate (7)


    Rare New Footage: JFK on First Debate with Nixon

    JFK discusses historic first debate with Richard Nixon in candid, newly discovered footage, as seen on HardballFrom my original post at, Nov. 20.

    “As a Democrat, I can say I don’t know what we’d do without television.”

    That was Jack Kennedy, reflecting on the now-legendary first debate with Richard Nixon of the 1960 presidential campaign. Newly discovered footage from the NBC News Archive shows Jack Kennedy speaking candidly as he puts on make-up, just four days after the famous confrontation played out on live television.

    The first presidential debate of 1960 was the first one ever televised. More than sixty million people watched and what they saw proved to be more important than what they heard: a haggard Nixon, just back from the hospital, pale, with sweat on his chin and upper lip.

    By comparison, Kennedy was cool and confident, projecting the “winning” image that would take him to the White House.

    The story goes that Nixon relied on make-up that failed to hold up under the hot lights of the studio. The newspapers had a field day with the story, and “The Chicago Daily News” went as far as to suggest that Nixon’s make up may have been intentionally sabotaged by a Democratic make-up artist.

    That story turned out to be untrue, but the “make-up issue” was as hotly debated as the debate itself.

    This clip is a rare glimpse behind the curtain at Jack Kennedy’s off-air persona as he prepared for an interview with David Brinkley and Chet Huntley of NBC News. It was taken at his home in Hyannis on Sept. 30, 1960.

    Historian Michael Beschloss discussed the importance of the recently-discovered footage on Hardball with Chris Matthews on MSNBC on November 20th, 2013:

    For additional information, please contact Hardball staff or the NBC News Video Archive team.

    Courtesy Chicago Public Library

    New, candid footage of JFK's off-air conversation before an interview with NBC News is discovered

    New off-air footage of Kennedy using eye-drops prior to interview with Chet Huntley and David Brinkley of NBC News discovered in archive

    Rare, candid footage of JFK having makeup applied is discovered in NBC News Archive, featured on Hardball with Chris Matthews on MSNBC


    KENNEDY:  See that story about the Democratic makeup man that sabotaged Nixon?
    OFF-CAMERA:  [inaudible]
    KENNEDY: Yeah, who did make him up?
    OFF-CAMERA:  [inaudible]
    KENNEDY:  Yeah, then why-
    OFF-CAMERA:  Who was it Len, do you know?
    OFF-CAMERA:  No, he has a man who does that for a long time.
    KENNEDY:  Same fellow, but why doesn’t Chicago Daily news have that?
    OFF-CAMERA:  They weren’t looking for it. [inaudible]
    KENNEDY: I must say, all these newspapers keep putting a’ knock now on the debate. I think it’s just (pause) media rivalry. Isn’t it?
    OFF-CAMERA: Well there’s some of that.
    KENNEDY: …as a Democrat, I can say I don’t know what we’d do without television. I look at print and…
    (shakes head)


    The Presidential Debate Tradition

    The presidential debates are an opportunity to see the candidates side by side as they make their pitch, but they’re also something that we, as voters, may take for granted. The forums that we’ve come to expect every four years are essentially a recent phenomenon, occurring only in one presidential election before 1976.
    While the first presidential debate in US history is often falsely attributed to Lincoln-Douglass, they were in fact held for the Illinois Senate race of 1858, which Lincoln lost. It was the Kennedy-Nixon debates in 1960, which are commonly referred to as the “first televised presidential debates,” that were actually the first presidential debates -- they just also happened to be televised.
    But Kennedy-Nixon did little to establish the precedent for election cycles to follow, as no debates were held in 1964, ’68 and ‘72. In each race the frontrunner declined the invitation in part because they were polling so far ahead that there was little incentive to engage an opponent on an equal playing field. Once rebuffed, challengers often took to publicly goading their opponent into a one-on-one, as did underdog candidates Goldwater, Humphrey and McGovern in their respective races.
    The trend of “frontrunner rebuff” ended in 1976 when the sitting President, Gerald Ford, challenged Democratic Nominee Jimmy Carter to debate – in effect, challenging the challenger – throwing down the gauntlet in his convention speech, no less.  Despite polling fifteen points ahead, Carter took the risk and accepted the President’s invitation, setting a new precedent of participating, regardless of standing in the polls.
    Those debates in 1976 and the two to follow in 1980 and 1984 proved increasingly difficult to arrange, and almost didn’t happen in 1980. The problem was that representatives of both candidates were tasked with working out the details, a drawn-out negotiation that proved difficult for rival campaigns each hoping for a strategic advantage in the heat of an election. In 1980, the deadlock was not resolved until October 18th, only 17 days before the November 4th election.
    In an attempt to simplify the negotiation and establish debates as a permanent part of the electoral process, the RNC and DNC came together in 1985 to recommend the now-standard schedule of four debates: three presidential, and one vice-presidential. Labeled by the Christian Science Monitor as “the great debate debate,” the result was the establishment in 1987 of the bipartisan, nonprofit Commission on Presidential Debates, which sponsors, schedules and produces the forums to this day – transforming the Presidential debates from that of novelty to established tradition.


    Presidential Debates: Before You Pick that Tie, Consider...

    The below was written for NBC's FIRST READ blog and can be found here.

    Does it matter whether a candidate wears a red-or-blue necktie in the presidential debates?

    Well, since the first televised in color in 1976, there have been a total of 22 Presidential debates, each with two major candidates. Therefore, there have been a total of 44 ties worn in debates over the last 9 elections.

    Of those 44, a candidate has chosen to wear a red tie 30 times, a blue tie only seven times and a tie that is both colors or neither a total of seven times as well. (We’ll call this “other”).

    Red has been the go-to choice for most candidates by a large margin -- but what’s more interesting is how infrequently a candidate wears a blue tie. (George W. Bush, from a party known for red, wore blue most often).

    The “other” category, which includes ties that are both colors, such as blue and red striped in equal ratios, and ties that are neither color, such as grey or brown, are worn 16% of the time. 

    There is obviously no correlation between a candidate’s choice of tie and their rate of success (unless you’re willing to delve into the subconscious preferences of the audience), but this begs the question: what color has most often been worn by a winner?

    If you count the number of times the individual color has been worn by the eventual winner, divided by how many times the color has been worn in total, the results are counter-intuitive: a candidate who has worn red has won only won 13 of 30 times, giving the tie a mere 43 percent success rate.

    Candidates who have worn a blue tie won four out of seven times, a rate of 57 percent, and a candidate who has worn “both/neither” has won the most, in five of seven instances, with a success rate of 71 percent.

    The most notable candidates who fall into this “other” category? Reagan in 1980 wore a brown tie; Clinton was partial to striped ties in 1992; and Obama in 2008, who dared to wear a grey tie in the second debate.


    Flashback: The Kennedy Nixon Debate in 1960

    Mike Dukakis, John Zogby and Ken Walsh talk about the first Kennedy Nixon debate in 1960: