Fifty years ago, on Sept. 26, 1960, John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon squared off in the first-ever televised general-election presidential debate. Within days, if not hours, the event gave rise to a mythology so well-known by now that it scarcely needs repeating. Handsome, dapper, poised, and articulate, Kennedy dispelled with his appearance any nagging worries that he might be too callow for the presidency. Clammy-faced, awkward, and plagued by his gloomy five-o’clock shadow, Nixon reinforced what he called “the Herblock image,” in reference to his nemesis, the Washington Post cartoonist, who had already immortalized Nixon’s menacing mug. As the story goes, the winner that night was not just Kennedy but the television image itself, which had, in a single stroke, demonstrated its newfound kingmaking power.
A widely told tale. But it’s not quite correct.
There’s no doubt that Kennedy looked better than Nixon that night. Wearing a dark suit and flashing his boyish smile, the junior senator from Massachusetts radiated charisma. Nixon, recovering from a knee infection and a cold, looked gaunt in his gray suit, which blended in with the walls, and sweat streaked his Lazy-Shave powder. “Fire the make-up man,” Nixon’s press aide Herb Klein was told by a supporter. “Everybody in this part of the country thinks Nixon is sick. Three doctors agreed he looked as if he had just suffered a coronary.” Henry Cabot Lodge, Nixon’s running-mate, supposedly said, “That son of a bitch just cost us the election.”