Monday, September 26, 2011

September 26, 1960 - Nixon-Kennedy Debate Faces Technical Difficulties

What would have been the first-ever televised debate among presidential candidates came under technical difficulties that cut out the visual transmission, leaving only the audio and a test pattern, leading many Americans to turn off their TVs.

Television was fast becoming the dominant medium for mass communication. By 1960, the inclusion of televisions in American households had increased some tenfold to 88%. There had been presidential debates broadcast by radio for some time, but this would be the first live coverage of presidential candidates in what would prove to be one of the closest races of the twentieth century. It was estimated that some 70 million people had tuned in for the debate, though they would be disappointed and would have to wait another week to see their candidates.

The Republicans had dominated the White House since former general Dwight Eisenhower had taken over for Truman in '53. Eisenhower's two-time vice-president Richard Nixon was now up to bat, having practically clawed his way up to the top of politics from a childhood of poverty. An economic recession had come into play, weakening the Republican grip and turning the attention to the Democratic Party's new poster boy, John Fitzgerald Kennedy. He was son of Joseph Kennedy, Ambassador to Britain before World War II and millionaire spirits-importer. Kennedy was Catholic, which proved to make many Protestants wary of a potential Vatican-dominated Washington but also bolstered the polls with many Catholics who had not participated in politics much before. Both men were young and had served in the Navy, but Kennedy had the advantage of being obviously more physically attractive.

Nixon, however, proved to carry the more powerful voice. At the time of what would have been the first televised debate, Nixon had just recovered from a hospital stay due to illness while campaigning and was pale, skinny, and still looked very exhausted. Attendees took great notice at the difference between the healthy, tanned playboy of Kennedy and the frail Nixon, but when the camera transmission failed, Nixon won handily. He would continue his luck when the second debate successfully went on the air (by this time he would be plumper from his famous "milkshake diet", well rested, and use professional stage makeup) as well as the third, though Kennedy would make up ground and cause the fourth to be pronounced a draw.

The election itself would be fraught with supposed corruption. Mob influence may have pushed Cook County in Chicago to be taken by Kennedy, which nearly tilted the whole of Illinois into his favor. Further questions were raised in Texas, the home of Kennedy's would-be vice-president, Senator Lyndon Johnson. Nixon reportedly refused to point fingers, which many believed would only lead to scandal on even his own end if investigations began about election fraud, such as the conspiracy that his aides had sabotaged the televised debate that September. Key Democratic votes were taken away from Kennedy by electors calling for conservative Democrat Senator Harry Byrd, and it would be enough for Nixon to take the White House the next year.

Nixon's term would be one of international turmoil. He would grant the order for air support at the Cuban exiles' victory at the Bay of Pigs, which would begin the Cuban War that lasted for almost two years before Castro's regime fell. Tensions with the Soviet Union would be constantly high, but the fighter in Nixon refused to ever back down. He poured resources into the American space program, paving the way for a Moon landing by the end of the decade. The Berlin Wall went up, strengthening the Iron Curtain, but Nixon would be instrumental in opening relations with the People's Republic of China, tilting the balance of world power into a wider mix than simply NATO against the Warsaw Pact.

While people debated his “soft on communism” approach, Nixon would continue to be popular and ever more so after his sudden assassination in Dallas while campaigning in November of 1963 with hopes of securing Texas for his next election. His vice-president Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr, would fill out his term and continue Nixon's international diplomacy with East Asia after his own election in 1964. Nixon is routinely ranked among the most loved of American presidents.


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In reality, the debate was televised, and Kennedy took the lead in the polls for the first time in the election season. He would win that November in the closest election since 1916. Nixon would refuse to debate again on television during his presidential campaigns in 1968 and '72, both of which he would win.

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