John F. Kennedy Library Foundation; WGBH Forum Network; 50th Anniversary of Kennedy/Nixon Debates
It or see Sorensen's served as President Kennedy's special counsel and was one of his most trusted colleagues our most frequent speaker here at the Kennedy Library. Each time he graces us with his presence we are reminded by his recall and quick wit of why JFK kept him so close to his side. Sander Vanocur is one of the nation's preeminent print and broadcast journalists having worked for ABC and NBC News The New York Times and The Washington Post journalist humorous essayist and biographer Russell Baker is a two time Pulitzer Prize winner the first for his distinguished commentary as a nationally syndicated columnist for The New York Times and the second for his autobiography growing up like John F. Kennedy William Wilson understood before many others the dramatic role television would play in modern presidential campaigns. A pioneer in political broadcasting. He was the first person hired as a television adviser for a presidential campaign serving Adelaide Stevenson in 1956. Marty Nolan is a veteran journalist who became a reporter for The Boston Globe in 1961. In 1966 he won the Pulitzer Prize for investigative journalism and went on to become the gloves. Washington bureau chief and the editor of its editorial page whether it be baseball political trivia no one is quicker with his recall of historical anecdotes and their larger meaning than our moderator who proves time and time again that an elephant never forgets and. A 40 year career with The Globe as correspondent and Washington columnist Tom Oliphant earned a Pulitzer Prize as one of three editors on special assignment who managed the paper's coverage of the efforts to desegregate the city's schools. He is the moderator we turn to most often for his command of the facts and for the impish pleasure he takes in engaging all of you and our panelists. So please join me in welcoming him along with Ted Sorenson Sandy Vanocur Russell Baker Bill Wilson and Marty Nolan to mark the 50th anniversary of the Kennedy Nixon debate.
Thank you very much. Tom Putman.
For all you do here by the way you know if some of you would like a special treat after this babbling is over this evening you might want to go downstairs here to the exhibits area where we're at with regard to the event we're discussing tonight. Among other things you can see this little primitive desk that kind of thing that would have been in your room in high school maybe and it was the desk from which Howard K. Smith then at CBS moderated that first debate.
And I always love to look at it because it reminds me how primitive that beginning was.
And yet Tom used the numbers 70 million which you sometimes hear about the size of that audience. There are studies that were done by the networks themselves and they do know how to do this. That that put the number of Americans who watched one or all of these debates and over 100 million maybe as high as 125 million.
Which makes that series of events weekly beginning September 26 the event up to that time in the entire history of the world.
No event had been seen by as many people give you an idea of what it was and so to perhaps introduce this enormously important historic sequence of evenings. I was going to ask each of my learned friends to tell me precisely where they were. When Howard K. Smith. Opened the first debate in Chicago in the studios of WBB and the CBS affiliate Tadd where precisely in the building were you.
Tom let me first say that consciouses I am this is a tax supported nonpartisan institution. I feel I should make it clear that tonight I intend to be totally objective.
The debate between the sainted John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon one whose enemies. I had the honor to be.
I was in the studio not on the sound stage where the debate took place but I was in the studio watching on.
Did they have a little room where you and others seen your assistance to the president watched the debate. Who is it.
Bill. Can you prove it. I thought you said you were in it. Yes I was. Indie.
After having spent the entire day virtually with the candidate I did going over last minute things. So there was a little room for AIDS which there is to this day still Bill good advance man. Indeed. And the Kennedy campaign even in 1960 and I shouldn't I should say especially in 1960 was this was famous for the quality of its advance work. Bill if 1916 were 20 10 and you had the kind of media culture than that you have today there would be people who would be surmising that it's because of Bill Wilson that Senator Kennedy was elected president. You worked with him a real reach.
But that's the nature of the modern media is a little more factual in those days.
But you spent a lot of time with him personally in the hours leading up to the beginning of that. And tell us what you did and where you were.
Well there was a moment that I think had a lot to do with the success of the debate. My job basically was in all the pre-production activity with each of the networks that were running the debate. Richard Nixon had his man who was Ted Rogers and JFK and me and we would sit with the director the stage manager and the set designer and design each of these panels.
And but the moment that is most important I think to the debate was we were in the room with Ted Bob Kennedy and JFK and they were still grilling him a little bit getting him up to speed and there was a sense that this was a very big moment because the problems in 60 were in the experience and name recognition and Catholicism. Those were the issues there were really any others in terms of the voters there were in terms of the media.
But at a particular point in the green room where we were holding I said we've said to Kennedy that we had to get makeup and we went but he said we'll find out if Nixon is going to get back. So I went down and there was Ted Rogers saying is your guy going to get made.
And I said not until you're a guy. And so it was a Mexican standoff I reported back to Kennedy who said well I'm not going to get made up.
I said you've got to have something. You have a good tan but you have to close the pores in that face because those lights in 1960 were huge broad lights was going to be there for an hour. As Nixon found out.
So I wrote I had started my career at that television station 10 10 years before listen to it and I knew that there was a place around the corner I ran across it got some pancake came back and put it on him which he didn't like at all but I said the poorest of the poor is the poor.
Here was the significant moment in the debate as far as I was concerned. We made our way to the stage but we were outside the opening to the studio stage and I had a checklist of all the things that should be done primarily to until he entered in and sat in that chair and I blew the checklist because I went out for that pancake makeup. And so as we hit the stage he said I have to go to the bathroom.
It was on my checklist and I forgot it.
And I took him to where he was supposed to go. I heard the stage manager doing ten nine. Eight. He made that stage and. What it did was freeze the room because everybody there thought were with out one of the contests. And to its side next and out because JFK walked in sat down crossed his legs like this and didn't look at anybody.
Now part of the lore bill. Is that when you came over to the studio what the ambassador East in Chicago was the Kennedy Drake Drake. OK. That you took a look at him in the studio and he had a white shirt on and you thought on not for television.
And he he wore a blue shirt somehow and a dark suit that was very important to like that because in those meetings I had him do a light beige background if you have a dark suit on you pop right out. And of course Nixon had a great suit and just melted back into the back Sandy the most important thing I was able to do. I've always believed in terms of dealing with the look of the debate was the single pole. And just the self on top of the notes because JFK was an eloquent man and I've always said that you perceived someone by 50 percent body language 25 percent attitude and 25 percent what they say Oh.
That's from my.
Dad. That back to life.
So what this means is that thanks to this guy.
50 years later we have these ridiculous looking podiums. Oh come on. That's right. Thanks to you Sandy.
Depending on one's perspective you either had the worst seat in the House or the best seat in the house. How did you come to occupy it.
And what's the difference between being in a pressroom somewhere and having to be part of the event.
I was in the fourth seat on the orders of our producer director Don Hewitt.
And I didn't see the debate.
People say you didn't see it. And I think about Groucho Marx line. Who are you going to believe me your lying eyes. Those of us who are the panelist did not see what the nation saw on television and.
The next morning I located governor Abe Ribicoff of Connecticut the first governor clarifier Kennedy and he had been driving the night before from Sacramento to San Francisco. And I said What do you think. You heard it on the radio. And he said I think that Nixon won. I next call Larry Kenny O'Donnell who was in Painesville Ohio with the senator and I said What do you think. Well at seven o'clock Frank ploughshare who was the senator a Democrat who voted with Republicans knocked on the door to congratulate Kennedy. I thought then Kennedy had probably carried away. But the key thing is people say would you see and I said we saw with our naked eyes. And that's different than what the nation saw or on radio what the nation heard. But at the end of the debate when the room cleared out on the start of Mackley there were no handlers there on either side to tell you what she'd seen or heard.
Russ that that. Makes me observe that for a poor slob who has to actually cover this story and the three of us we've all been in that position on presidential debate night. Today there are 750 television monitors surrounding you in a cavernous well lubricated press room. There are people bombarding you with opinions from one side or the other either through your computer or in your ear or in person.
What was what was what were the circumstances like of your coverage that night. Where were you.
I was in the building. I was in a private room off across the corridor from where the show was going on. We had set up a monitor. So I could watch and listen and I was typing simultaneously. I was on deadline and I would tape a couple of lines and give it to the Western Union in those days and they would whatever they did with it. And I was busy a person that you know was the one armed. It was a fierce job physically. Yeah. And I'm watching and I'm listening and I'm typing and I'm calling Western Union and I don't know what's going on and the puppy is flowing and I managed to get it all out. By the time the debate was over. But it was not much of a story actually.
I had to tell how many editions Excuse me did you have to file for that night.
I have no idea. But it was three or four. You didn't it didn't make any difference you know one story holds true the night and listening to what's been said so for I'm struck by how primitive it was. You know we're talking about who won and who lost. These things aren't won or lost on the war it's just put figure you cut on television well it matters. Nobody was listening. I listened to my memory of it was that they talked about him more than months to. Two islands off the coast of Formosa Taiwan. And glisten and the arguing the diplomacy over it and nobody I couldn't believe anybody cared in the country.
And the natives I thought a very thin story. Kennedy was impressive because he came out I guess well-equipped but Ted with statistics I was really impressed by Kennedy's spew of statistics that came out this guy really knows a lot. He cut that figure. But I didn't see what the nation was seeing and that while listening. Which was his figure of this dynamic elegant young figure if I could gently contradict you.
Just a touch from your own story that night which I studied a couple of times further down in it after the the basics of the story have been reported. You made an observation that I think is extraordinarily precious.
And I want to get Marty to talk about this in a second that.
The differences between Kennedy and Nixon that night were on the one hand not particularly sharp in your observation. And secondly you wrote that they were not particularly sharply expressed and that as a result you said it appeared that the event was most important to them in terms of how it influenced public perceptions of them as potential presidents as opposed to what they said.
Rote that you did and at the desk didn't change it and it appears to have been printed in in other words did back in 1960.
There is evidence that at least some people in the press particularly editors were very interested in having you tell the country what these people said.
Has this strange notion that it would seem primitive to me that people somebody was interested in content.
That's right. You know it's Nowadays you don't listen and people don't listen to television. They look at television. And they were looking at. I was listening to the Kennedy people I think are very shrewd.
They knew that all along Kennedy was really up for that. He came in looking tanned rested for him everything. It was a great performance. And you were aware of that somebody was aware of it deep down.
But the debate is this old fashioned notion that we're debating. I've watched a lot of presidential debates and nobody even pretends to be that evil.
Marty can you see first of all tell tell us where you were.
So what if you were younger. You know I was younger. No no he was pretty good looking in his head.
I was in the newsroom of the great student newspaper in Boston College Heights and it was closing night and for hours weekly and I said lads let's get this.
Hockey Team story plays we got at it with a television set. We had what we knew pubs that have them and so we did the American thing and went to a pub and of course everything is black and white television there.
And I remember my first impression that I was fairly precocious the political television watcher that I can recall watching the key Fabrik Crime Commission hearings and certainly the speech which is what Richard Nixon called the Checkers speech and the army McCarthy hearings with the Boston attorney Josephine Welch a very famous man. So when I look at this really I knew it was historic because it was it had never happened in presidential politics before. I mean Lincoln and Douglas debated for the Senate in 1858.
And I remember looking at Nixon and feeling. Automatically sorry for him because he looked so ghastly. He had a gray suit on against gray background and he looked sallow and the etiquettes Kennedy was great. And of course we were all for Kennedy but I first notion of Nixon and then of course I was so entranced with it that years later when the government the GPO the Government Printing Office actually printed the transcript of all the speeches of each candidate in 1960 and then also the joint appearances and I had that book Green and the cover on it and a good intellectual exercise some day would be to go through it and in certain paragraphs say which candidate said this.
I just looked at it recently and I said Oh I see what Kennedy was for single payer because that's where Walter Ruther and all the union guys wanted to on health care.
And guess what Nixon was advocating what we now call Obamacare.
So you just you had that that Nixon Nixon Nixon would not pass muster that Tea Party rally today.
So the substance of it which was in the newspapers certainly the New York Times and it's a scar responding to. You know still overwhelmed what everybody thought. Did you see the debate. Very few people say Did you hear that debate because you know it was an event. And of course the profoundly changed politics.
And you I can do this briefly because it introduces one more elephant in and then in the narrative I was about to graduate from high school and my in Southern California and my best friend and I constituted the entire field organization for the Kennedy Johnson ticket in northern San Diego County where where it was which was so right wing that the John Birch Society where the moderates. And now and we had orders from headquarters to go up to a little town just south of Oceanside of where we were going to canvass in a Democratic neighborhood after the debate. And now my friend's father drove us out and we heard the debate on the radio. Nervous not knowing what to think. And then I saw it and were thrilled and we went out and canvassed in Encinitas California until 11:00 p.m. and raised two hundred dollars which was a lot of money in those days. Ted I wanted to ask. There's been a lot of anti substance rhetoric here on the panel so far. And I wanted to ask you about your work with Senator Kennedy on the opening statement as some of you may know that all of you should be reminded that this is the beginning of the use of the word debate to describe something that doesn't quite fit the definition of what you think of as a debate in this first one in Chicago. Both the senator and the vice president made opening statements that lasted almost nine minutes apiece and they were also each given closing statements that exceeded four minutes apiece. Now do the math.
It's an hour of television. There were 10 questions asked and answered during that first exchange. So that meant that in terms of political impact not only how they look but what they said in those first five and then nine first nine minutes of exposure was critical. And I remember at the time and ever since being stunned at the way Senator Kennedy began it was a debate about domestic issues and the first words out of his mouth were about the Cold War and how we couldn't win if we didn't move forward at home and all the things that Russ was talking about that he's dissatisfied with the pace of progress.
Mike What were you trying to achieve in that opening statement because it set the tone for that evening.
Kennedy's theme from the very beginning was he was not satisfied. We've got to do better we've got to get this country moving again because the Soviet Union is surpassing us and we have to be strong.
And that means a strong economy. And he's segue from strength to overtake the Soviet Union and to build in our economic strength at home where too much is going wrong. Yes it's true that agreement had been reached.
And Bill and I were part of the Kennedy team that met with the Nixon team and the network representatives we agreed on the eight minute openings we agreed on the four minute closings. We agreed there would be only four debates and that is enough. The Nixon people remember this bill the Nixon people. Did not want that. They didn't want their candidates sitting near Kennedy on the plane. That would make them seem equal and Kennedy would win just by showing up. They wanted the candidates sitting further apart. That's why debate number three.
The first two are going to have 3000 miles if you told him that he was in L.A. for the New York debate anyway.
I think there was plenty of substance in that opening about. We've got to get this country and deploring what was happening particularly at the bottom of the economic ladder. He even mentioned civil rights to his credit. And that opening statement and the discrimination against black Americans. And he had some pretty good way statistics as Marty pointed out Nixon was full of statistics but in typical deep based fashion he was answering Kennedy while Kennedy was addressing the nation.
Right. And his statistics were all boring statistics.
I don't know how Eisenhower had done better than Truman. Nobody is debating that as far as I know. That's what Nixon focused on.
And may I say one word about the myth which. Is repeated here that Nixon won on the radio that in all due respect to Abe Ribicoff there's no such thing as Nixon winning on radio.
Sure he sounded more like a debate. And it's true they couldn't see that ghastly look the. Mention of the makeup on in person perspiration and is very nervous shifty eyes back and forth. But the people on the radio could still hear Nixon's weak answers afterward. After. At the very beginning Kennedy answered the first question with why we had to do is instead of. And Nixon who had received a phone call at the last minute for me his running mate. A Massachusetts man known as lodge saying don't be the assassin. Get over that. Well that's an image. Be a nice guy. So when Howard case said Mr. Vice President what is your comment on Senator Kennedy statement and he said I have no comment. He had no comment. And later on he would say I agree with Senator Kennedy. I agree on this. I mean the right wing Republicans were furious with him. Can people on radio heard that and they also heard Nixon go back to form and the Tea Party today would agree. When Nixon said what Senator Kennedy is proposing. $ 25 an hour minimum wage is too extreme.
I want to ask help from Russ and Sandy to understand what Nixon was trying to do on that stage. Ted has mentioned that when they got to the Q and A.
It really is true that after Senator Kennedy took the question and Howard K. Smith turned to Nixon to ask for a con and Nixon really did say I have no comment. But I'm also interested in the beginning of Nixon's prepared statement which followed Senator Kennedy's.
And here is the catchy opening line that things that Senator Kennedy has said many of us can agree with the disagreement that we have is over. The means to reach the goals that we share.
Now that's thart. And that phrase is just almost literally by my count was repeated six different times during the debate. Can you help me understand from your knowledge of the state of the campaign as of that night what was Nixon trying to accomplish with his demeanor forget his appearance for a second because we'll get back to Bill and I think Nixon was trying to minimize the combative aspect of the campaign.
He thought he had his coming out of the great triumphs the glory days of the Eisenhower administration and all he had to do was ride Eisenhower's coattails. They've been victorious with everything they did. The country was at peace. Things were going well. There was no need to argue about the point I think. I remember I was covering Nixon on a daily basis at the time and that was his speech he gave five or six times a day. That everything was fine. You know why should we disagree.
You know quote me along with Sandy to get you in here at that moment as of that night. Right. The to the extent there were polls in those days had perhaps Nixon ever so slightly ahead but certainly not by any thing approaching a comfortable margin. Did you have that sense sitting there that the vice president was trying to play it safe and sit on a lead. Or what did you think he was up to.
Exactly right. He was sitting. What would Kennedy was capitalizing on. It was I think Sputnik in 1958 and I remember.
Flying in. International airport on the Karoline after the primaries and he threw something over and said this is unacceptable.
The Wall Street Journal article was simply that for the first time the Soviet Union had exceeded the United States in the production of machine tools was to use the gauge of a country's prowess.
And Kennedy said this is unacceptable. I think that Kennedy was on the attack and Nixon was on the defense and I don't think he was helped very much by Eisenhower. I think that's very important to the proceedings.
We're going to get to that because we have video on that. But Marty who probably knows more about Nixon than anybody alive or dead. Or both. Here's this dichotomy again isn't it for us. Nice guy. Awful guy like me. I don't like you. Is this familiar. Even 50 years ago.
Oh this is don't forget for Richard Nixon to get to this point to get the nomination he had to take on the Rockefeller fortunes and. Nixon. I always see of him as a Dickensian waif. His nose his significant nose pressed against the glass looking at all the sugar plums inside that he can't get and he has said as much. I mean he's a very good writer I commend his writing his six crises is a burr Nixon has the ring of honesty I mean a lot of his gripes filtered through or HL Mencken months review. Calvin Coolidge his autobiography say well whatever it is it's it's accurate. And even if it's not true it's accurate and Nixon. So Nixon had this.
I mean this he just nourished his resentments his resentments were a flowering garden of. Envy and the disdain for those rich people the Rockefellers and the Kennedys. And I'm not one of them. I have to work on my dad's farm and all. And so it's and he was born.
He was born in a log cabin like anyone else he was born in a house his father built from the Sears Roebuck catalog and it's still there and you're traveling in the right there.
And so he he did have that terrible burden and to go against Nelson Rockefeller who was a pretty glamorous fellow an intelligent fellow. And and then just survived that and then to go up.
He much preferred Lyndon Johnson or Stuart Symington conventional can rest did you have any sense that night or covering him on a daily basis of what kind of national leader he wanted to be in in 1960. Yeah. Context again to help us understand his demeanor that I know I don't think he had any idea.
I mean I think Nixon was one of those politicians who loved the game. You know it was victory or it was defeat. And he just loved the game. I don't really think he had much vision. I would like to make a point that hasn't been touched and yet another is Nixon was sick that night. I'd started with him on the campaign. At the opening of the campaign he decided he was going to fly across the country on one day and make four stops. But before we took off he did something extraordinary.
He had a reception for the press just the press that was going with him and we were invited down to the Mayflower or wherever. And to bring your wife along.
I took my wife a chance to meet this man. And Nixon came in. He looked ghastly. Physically he'd lost weight. He had been in the hospital for a long period with an infection he'd banged his knee somehow. And he hadn't still had recovered and I was shocked to see him. I hadn't seen him for several weeks. He'd been in the hospital came out and he was no he didn't look sick. You know he's frail. And he hadn't gotten over that. I think the debates came two weeks after that in Chicago.
Bill you know something about this because you were right at the place with our hearts go out this studio and he did he did it again didn't he got out and he hit his knee again and everybody grab for him.
It was the knee that he was in the hospital for. No he didn't look just right Bill.
Now on the other hand at that time the lore was that Nixon had not worn any makeup that night and as near as I can tell that's not true. Right. Bill there was a product in those days really test your memory for people who develop what came to be known as five o'clock shadow. I think Mannon made it and it was called lazy shape. That's right. Right.
And you put it on and it was sort like that had Rogers couldn't run to the corner and get a pancake makeup the way you could he used it which just intensified any kind of a sweat that would come down.
And it also intensified the absence of contrast between the way he presented and this very light background behind him. Now also Ted Rogers who was next this guy. Yes. And had. Had had produce the Checkers speech in 1952. So very experienced in this new medium.
I think he was the guy who rode with Nixon or talked to him just before the debate and we've heard a little bit about the advice from of all people that experienced national politician Henry Cabot Lodge to be a nice guy and get rid of the assassin image.
But what I've always been told is that the media people said don't let him get away with anything. Reply to every charge being vigorous and aggressive. And something went wrong. Here's a guy he trusted obviously and didn't listen to him.
Exactly. When it when a candidate becomes the presidential candidate a very tight group gets around him. And even if you had a long term relationship with Massa that did having been the checkers beats you he had a lot of trouble being where he should be.
Sandy we have a little video that's illustrative of several things actually. If you think about modern debates and the questions that get asked in them you can see an early example of that.
I do too. Or I'm dead I'm dead.
But let's for a second look at a rather good looking young network correspondent.
He looks the same he looks the same.
Well there were other features then asking up perfectly understandable but actually unusual question of of Nixon and one that had been had come up a couple of times before that night and he'll tell us this story after we see.
I hope the clip.
Good evening. The television and radio stations of the United States and their affiliated stations are proud to provide facilities for discussion of issues and the current political campaign by the two major candidates for the presidency. The candidates need no introduction. The Republican candidate Vice President Richard Nixon and the Democratic candidate Senator John F. Kennedy. And now for the first opening statement by Senator John F. Kennedy. They're not going to run.
With Mr. Nixon in the election of 1860.
Abraham Lincoln said the question was whether this nation could exist half slave or half free. In the election of 1960 and with the world around us. The question is whether the world will exist half slave or half free whether it will move in the direction of freedom in the direction of the road that we are taking or whether it will move in the direction of slavery. The question now is can freedom be maintained under the most severe attack it has ever known. I think it can be and I think in the final analysis it depends upon what we do here. I think it's time America started moving again.
And now the opening statement by Vice President Richard M. Nixon the things that Senator Kennedy has said many of us can agree with. There is no question but that we cannot discuss our internal affairs in the United States without recognizing that they have a tremendous bearing on our international position. There is no question but that this nation cannot stand still. Let's put it in terms of all of us can understand. We often hear gross national product discussed and in that respect may I say that when we compare the growth in this administration with that of the previous administration that then there was a total growth of 11 percent over seven years. And this administration there has been a total growth of 19 percent.
It isn't enough to compare what might have been done eight years ago or 10 years ago or 15 years ago or 20 years ago. I want to compare what we are doing with what our adversaries are doing so that by the end 1970 the United States is ahead in education in health in building in homes in economic strength. I think it shows the difference between the two parties. One party is ready to move in these programs the other party gives them lip service.
The next question to Senator Kennedy from Mr. Novak. You call for expanding some of the welfare programs for schools for teacher salaries medical care and so forth but you also call for reducing the federal debt. And I'm wondering how you if you're a president in January would go about paying the bill for all this.
There's may not. I did not advocate reducing the federal debt because I don't believe that you're going to be able to reduce the federal debt very much in 1961 two or three. And if you have heavy obligations which affect our security which we're going to have to meet and therefore I've never suggested we should. Be able to retire the debt substantially or even at all in 1961. I live and one of your spells you have tested that reducing the interest rate would help toward now. No I would not be using interest reducing the interest rate in my judgment the hard money tight money policy fiscal policy this administration has contributed to the slowdown in our economy.
It is essential that a man who is president of this country certainly stands for every program that will mean for growth. And I stand for programs that will mean growth and progress. But it is also essential that he not allow a dollar spent that could be better spent by the people themselves.
Mr. Nixon comes out of the Republican Party. He was nominated by it and it is a fact that through most of these last 25 years the Republican leadership has opposed federal aid for education medical care for the aging development of the Tennessee Valley development of natural resources. I think Mr. Nixon is an effective leader of his party. I hope he would grant me the same. The question before us is which point of view and which party do we want to leave the United States.
Mr. Nixon would you like to comment on that statement. I have no comment.
The next question no Republican campaign slogans. You'll see them on signs around the country as it did last week say it's experience that counts. That's over a picture of yourself sir implying that you've had more governmental executive decision making experience than your opponent nightly news conference on August 24. President Eisenhower was asked to give one example of a major idea of yours that he adopted. His reply was and I'm quoting If you give me a week I might think of one. I don't remember.
I can only say that my experience is there for the people to consider. Senator Kennedy's is there for the people to consider as he pointed out. We came to the Congress in the same year. His experience has been different from mine. Mine has been in the Executive Branch. His has been in the legislative branch. I would say that the people now have the opportunity to evaluate his ads against mine. And I think both he and I are going to abide by whatever the people decide.
If you feel that everything that is being done now is satisfactory that the relative power and prestige and strength of the United States is increasing in relation to that of the Communists that we have to gaining more security that we are achieving everything as a nation that we should achieve that we're achieving a better life for our citizens and greatest strength.
And I agree I think you should vote for Mr. next. Only you can decide what you want what you want this country to be what you want to do with the future. I think we're ready to move. And it is that great task if we're successful that we address ourselves. Thank you very much gentlemen this hour has gone by all too quickly.
Other debates in this series will be announced later and will be on different subjects. This is Howard K. Smith.
Good night from Chicago.
I apologize for the back view of Sandy beaches.
If if Bill Wilson had been in charge of his image that night that that never would have happened. Sandy as you know better than I.
Nixon hated that question so much so that he even wrote about it in the book he wrote the following year partially dissecting his defeat. Why did you ask it.
I asked it because it was standing out there waiting to be asked. It grew out of a question put to him by a very able reporter for The New York Times Charles Moore and H.R. who along with David Halberstam just gave the New York Times wonderful coverage from Vietnam because the Republicans had been making that an issue in the campaign. It's experience that counts. And I think President Eisenhower never liked Richard Nixon very much and I think he was dismissive of that answer. It was a careless and reckless and Stuart Novins whom you just saw as part of the question before and it never got finished. So it was hanging there waiting to be finished.
Rest in in the part of Nixon's answer that wasn't shown on the screen. He first tried to smile and suggest that President Eisenhower was joking that he wasn't serious.
And again as somebody who had to deal with him every day what do you remember about the exchange.
About the during the debate. Oh I thought you were talking about Eisenhower saying he'd think might give it to him.
That was an extraordinary moment in that campaign.
Well Nixon was you know he. As I.
Said Nixon. Liked the fight he liked the game. He treated government as a game he is always winning and when the game went against him he took it very hard. You know we would like to see you. He's in his whole campaign he said it all he said throughout.
Was they were and done a wonderful job and he was going to continue it. It didn't make much of it. There's not much to argue about.
Did he ever come to grips with how he felt about Eisenhower or how Eisenhower felt about him.
Well as he would say I'm glad you asked Nixon.
He had been vice president for eight years but he's vice president for a commander in chief who looked upon the vice presidency as a job for a young staff guy. Oh. Boy. And and if you look at the list of Eisenhower's possible nominees they were all young. And the vice presidency is not a job for a young man.
It is the last happy vice president we had. Was Alvin Barkley of Kentucky who is older than Harry Truman and maybe Joe Biden who is older. I hope he's right. I think Joe Biden should read Albert Barkleys memoirs.
Nineteen sixty eight. December of 1968 I'm covering the Johnson White House and it is the event you'd think it's a big event. The president elect and Mrs. Nixon's show up at the White House and the president and Lady Bird both come out onto the driveway which is a nice touch of you know protocol.
In the White House press corps about a dozen people at this time you know who's not a big big story. And so we wait around and Nixon comes out and I had covered his whole campaign and his congressional campaigns and he had gone through the humiliation of losing the California governorship and then being all this. Down as vice president. And he looked absolutely seraphic be a terrific. He never looked happier. He said Oh I wanted to thank President and Mrs. Johnson so much Patton I have seen parts of the White House.
We've never seen an all out war baby and we're just we're are who you know and I'm looking over at Bryce Harlow who had worked for Ike and he's like don't look at me.
And I was just telling touching you know. More or more monuments to his pile of resentment resentments and so.
They. Had asked me to cover Eisenhower's final speech so I could observe them too. When President elect Kennedy gave his that was the industrial complex that he was there and I hung out with Haggerty and Robert Montgomery who was Eisenhower's press secretary James Haggerty and Robert Montgomery who was a movie star. And advisor to the president I walked into their office that day that evening and I looked very young and both their mouths just dropped to the floor. And then I went to the studio and observed the speech that he gave. There was only one other civilian in there. And when he came to the industrial military complex point we both looked at each other just like that. It was a startling moment. After the speech Jim Haggerty said Bill would you like to meet the president and I said Certainly. And he introduced me to Eisenhower. Who looked at me then looked over his shoulder at Robert Montgomery and said Bob have you met your replacement.
There it is. I am going to ask Ted's help on an aspect of this in a second. But first I wanted to tell you all that we're getting close to that moment in Kennedy Library evening. When you get to go to the microphones and with some allowance for brevity ask any thing you want. And if there's something on your mind you might want to think about slowly going toward the microphones. We're going to talk about one other element aspect of the debates rather and that is the sharpest conflict that was raised during them.
But first so feel free but in about 10 minutes we'll will start taking questions. Ted the experience question had loomed so large up until that night in Chicago. Do you think the issue changed after that night or after the debates and did it change.
Senator Kennedy the next day in Ohio is one of the other panelists mentioned not only did Frank Lawsie join the motorcade but the turnout for the motorcade was larger than ever been before including you remember the lever's and the young flimsier who somehow levitate and then.
To. See over the people standing in front of them. We had never seen them but they were great numbers. The next day in Ohio. And that was only one sign of what was to come. Indeed.
Now before we get a yes of course of course because of the rose I made earlier about Nixon's hospitalization.
And it reminds me of one of J of Kay's greatest or two of his great lines combined in one that he said when Mr. Nixon was in the hospital I said as a matter of fairness equity I would not. Mention him unless I could speak of him favorably. And you notice I haven't spoken up him.
There it is. Thank you. Now.
We have we have highlighted sandies question. And Nixon's answer because it seemed to go to the heart of.
Part of what was before the country that that year. But there was one other thing in these four debates that really did rise to the level of a campaign issue. It popped up in a question almost at the end of the second debate. It was present in the third and the fourth and you can always tell in a presidential campaign when something important this happened in a debate if both sides talk about it for several days thereafter. And it involved two tiny little islands off the coast barely off the coast of what was then called communist China. And the issue was whether the United States either was obligated to go to war to defend them if attacked by the Chinese Communists or chide as if you were in the CIA at the time or not. The issue came up in a question by one of the panelists that night. We all remember Edward P. Morgan of ABC.
Senator Kennedy Saturday on television you said you had always thought that Quemoy and Mat-Su were unwise places to draw our defense line in the Far East. Would you comment further on that. And I'll also comment on whether a pullback would constitute appeasement a very dirty word in in 1960. The result was a back and forth on this question of these two tiny little islands Sandy was in an argument about nothing or what with the stakes for each campaign in this argument I think most people in the country thought it was a Chinese song and dance act.
And. Nobody knew where the hell these were.
Who really cared where they were and I don't think it was an issue except if it reminded people of the phrase who lost China. But I don't think that resonated. I swear I think it is. I want to get the country moving again. And it was the Catholic issue which I think was a very very tough with Kennedy. He didn't win by much. No. And I think the Catholic issue resonated throughout the whole campaign.
When you read when you first heard it how did Quemoy and Mat-Su strike you. Was it a good part. Did it bring the story alive a little bit.
Well I was reading for the times that's an audience that might be interested in more in months who had been writing for.
The San Francisco Chronicle might not have got to it.
Is that another way of saying that in your judgment you agree with Sandy that for all of the sharpness of the exchanges that went on after all for two weeks here that this was something that just didn't interest the country very much.
I think and he put his finger on it it raises the old question the Republicans three years her feet feasted off the Democrats who lost China and they thought this could be this might work once more. Once more we might run it around the middle once war. Well it didn't work that nobody. Kim Roy and Martha were they were two tiny islands within ten miles of the mainland there whatever we were committed to defending Taiwan. With. So the fleets believe there was a firm commitment on that.
We called it for Mossad that is. And should they. Should these two tiny islands be brought into the defense.
And yet Marty Twelve years later this guy goes to China. Yeah. Did he lack. The conviction of those nights in 1960 or.
Well it was easy.
This is this is why getting into Nixon's head is labyrinthine journey from which that born from which no traveler returns.
He in his written notes which are totally different from his speeches press conferences and especially the tapes. It was the good mix and the things he wanted to do. And Kissinger said that's ambition megalomania whatever you want to call it. And detente was a great idea. Let us you know let us do something about the situation.
And and he knew that it was a brilliant election ploy. So I think we were in New Hampshire covering the Ed Muskie George McGovern showdown and it couldn't get on page 17.
I mean Nixon's in China and with every major newspaper in the country except the Boston Globe if you're a tad did Senator Kennedy worry about Kim LEUPEN Mat-Su when this happened and when it kept happening day in and day out on the campaign trail and in two more of the debates how did you see it as a potential threat.
I'm not sure you.
I think we saw it more as a potential opportunity instead of a thread. Richard Nixon.
Consistent with his lifelong anti-communism wanted to show that he was ready to go to war even against communist China.
And Senator Kennedy wanted to show that he was not. I still remember I was in my hotel room in New York before the third debate and. I received over the transom some unknown supporter but he documented a quotation from a very distinguished general. Those two islands are not worth the blood of a single American. And. That's striking gold for me.
You know apropos Marty's comment earlier that you sometimes can't tell. In 1960 terms who the candidate is saying what one of the things that Senator Kennedy did ask him in Mat-Su was festering was turned Cuba around on Nixon. And here's Kennedy advocating and getting in tight with the exiles you can almost guess at what's coming. Not very many months in the future. And Nixon is arguing in public against doing precisely that. So maybe in some ways it did. Do you think Nixon Nixon already knew about the Bay of Pigs right.
Right. He did because Ken Keating I think you know Senator Kennedy now.
Does he know we were preparing definitely not that he hadn't even been briefed on that nor had his foreign policy representative. But Nixon's attack on Kennedy was more attacking him for releasing secret information.
That's right. There is. Give me one second and I'll tell a final story about this suggesting that Sandy may be right. Every politician in America during this period was being asked what he thought about Quemoy and Mat-Su. And one of them was Ross Barnett the governor of Mississippi who gave off only about 15 watts of intellectual.
Fire Power and he was asked one day at a news conference What's your position on Quemoy and Matsu governor. And he looked helplessly at an assistant had said Jim them those two fellers I put on a fishing and then compare what has.
Happened there as well. But remember remember this though.
The two leading public cases in this country time in Reader's Digest were both run by sons of Chinese missionaries. DEWITT was the reader's digest in Henry Louis. And it's not possible to underestimate the torture we suffered from the question who lost China.
You have been very very patient.
Please feel free to go to the.
Microphones and when I'm going to do as best I can as to try to direct the questions to one person up here in the interests of time and allowing as many as possible please go right ahead.
I actually have to that you can choose. First it seems unfortunate. It's fun to talk about the debate but it seems unfortunate that so much would turn on whether Nixon was sweating or had the right color or pseudo And that sounds very contemporary. I'd be interested to comment on that. The other question was Does anyone want to venture what they think would have happened had Nixon won the election.
Will discard the latter go with the former. And it really goes to the heart of what Bill Wilson does. You don't think it's about nothing do you Bill. Oh boy.
You have two people to compare for the first time. And I Ted Rogers and I went out for a drink after the debates and told of the fact we produce a television program that reached 90 million people.
But it is that comparison of who do you like and who don't you like that comes in that format. I think it's contained to one thing and I think Hemingway answered the question. I don't know who asked it. The rich are different from you and me. Hemingway said yes they have more money. Kennedy had more money.
And this is again a week where a lot of people are murmuring It's Fitzgerald and it's Gatsby.
But we don't care. You have been very tough. It's just not funny.
It's true but it's not very yes.
You have also been very patient.
Thank you very much.
I could listen all night. You have to forgive me I have a couple of comments to question. First of all I need them for the debate. The first one I was 20 21 at the time and. I did that too. I don't think I went to college too but I had just graduate. I don't think I knew what those were. And. The next day people were saying I'm not sure it was so much in the papers but people that had listened to the radio were saying that Nixon did better because I was so biased I only heard what he said. But I want to say first of all I came here tonight not only for the subject but a distinguished panel but specifically to see see if he had O'Connor who was a star etc. I'd say he was out with me has never happened.
That whole drama and. Clever. At all so this debate be ties.
I bought his book to my book club can't read. And I love the idea of biography I. And I love you and masterpiece. I don't know why you don't. But the other comment was I was twitchy during the election and it was my first vote ever. And as an Irish Catholic Democrat from Boston I thought I was created to cash. This. First. They.
Just it's wonderful to see everybody here this Ceasars. Of course I've seen it before and very crowded. Read his book. I just really happy. Thank you.
Go right ahead. Several of you have commented on the fact that over these last 50 years there's been a definite trend to having more style than substance in debates. My question is sort of threefold have we made progress. Is this good for democracy. And does this make the electorate more easily manipulated. Marty is not to be the be manipulated.
Marty is going to take that and I hope Ted will comment on his answer.
Well consider the alternative we went to from the 1960s in 1976 with no debates because Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon said no way Lyndon Johnson saw what happened to Nixon. Nixon saw what happened to Nixon.
Had not given the old Heisman trophy to that you know. And.
But one gift Nixon gave the Republic was to resign so that Gerald Ford could not afford not to debate. And even you know he could have been ahead in the polls and all that but he had to debate because he was not an elected president so. So that was Nixon's gift. And in the first Carter Ford debate was in Philadelphia and that was when the famous 17 19 1940.
I think of the 18 that I had to get through.
But and and they just stood there like toy soldiers you know and not and this is the beginning of Spin Alley which is a wretched institution. Six hundred out-of-work political consultants trying to get airtime.
And but but in the in the crowd in Philadelphia that time was Eugene McCarthy who would run for president kept on running all the time what was purported essence. What did you think of the 19 minute gap he said. Yeah.
I really didn't notice Ted.
I'm interested in your comments but I also wanted to ask you whether that night or in that period you and or the senator had any sense that national politics was never going to be the same because of what was happening.
So many things I want to say I'll try to say them very quickly I want to answer the second question that didn't get answered from the first question. If Nixon if Nixon had won the election and was president in October 1962 when the Soviet Union put nuclear missiles into Cuba. He would have accepted the advice of the Joint Chiefs and none of us would be here right now.
Number two style. No it's true that presidents as a rule don't make decisions sitting by themselves with cells without advisers without being allowed notes and they have two and a half minutes to decide in a four minute closing. No that's not that's not really a great test.
The real debate between Lincoln and Douglas I think first of the judgment of the two candidates a lot more Nevertheless style is what Kennedy used to rally the country and the rally the world behind us even get some congressional support for his program for the Congress then dominated by a GOP Dixiecrat coalition. So let's not rule.
Thank you and thank you.
I guess this would be the time in Miami.
In 1958 then Senator Kennedy came through Holbrook which is a small town right next to Brocton. Also Endicott's too. And you know my father was one of President Kennedy's campaign secretaries when he was running for re-election to the Senate. And you know I remember meeting the president that day and then two years later you know I sat with my family and watched the you know watch the convention and then the debate and then the debate. And you know after the debate My father was like really excited. You know I guess I was more excited because I saw someone on TV that I had met in town. But you know you know he got me excited. And I you know I remember watching it with my parents and I was just wondering if both of you you know if you felt really energized even more after that because know I'm wondering if they sent you maybe a couple of more people in California to help you out here in.
The park that we got.
Maybe Ted remembers this maybe rest and Sandy do. But there were the Democratic system in those days actually depended on ordinary citizens for money. And the Democratic Party there was a program that lasted through 1960 that was called dollars for Democrats. And if you went canvassing you went with a bucket. In addition to writing down who was a strong supporter and needed help getting to the polls or whatever. And the park. From that work in northern San Diego County at the time of the Los Angeles debate which was the third if I'm not mistaken I was to go down to San Diego and meet Bob Kennedy.
And that made it all worthwhile.
You know 17 years old and no it wouldn't have made any difference. Nixon was going to win California not by much but I think I got a chance to see the energy that Ted was talking about that was released because of his performance. I'll give you some numbers on this and a little bit. But the impact on people as measured after the election was actually very substantial and very much like what you're talking about.
Yes Ted we are not just saying that California election night or I should say the next night we thought Kennedy had won and thereby won the election. But the write in vote the people who are rich enough to be away on. Occasion was always change to the next.
Almost sir. And then now we'll try to discuss the impact of all of this and put it to put it to bed as best we can. Please go ahead.
I love your book on your counseling to President Kennedy. I wish we could see more of your writing more on the current state of this crazy world of ours and this political situation we're living with today. I'd like you to put on your hat in the future let's say the presidential debate of 2012. We have President Obama and Tea Party Governor Palin debating what advice would you give Obama for that particular debate.
Well first of all. I have to comment in terms of.
Those who say Well Kennedy must have been nervous because of Nixon as pointed out here. I debated Khrushchev in a crinolines so-called kitchen debate. Nixon had more experience but the best comment was the one Kennedy made in the fall campaign after the debates were finally over when he said in Minnesota of course it's easier to play Harvard after you played Ohio State and Nixon and Nixon.
He just debated Cruz. I had to debate Hubert Humphrey in Wisconsin.
As far as Pailin. Bear in mind what Gail Collins wrote in The New York Times not long ago.
If you're out there in public life. Try to remember that five percent of the population is certifiably insane.
Go ahead. Sandy. You're up.
As H.L. Mencken said. Nobody ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American people just because of your unique perspective.
Someone who became a wry observer of the human scene after having had to cover it did you. I wanted to get you on the record tonight in terms of whether those evenings in the fall of 1960 you sensed that the game was changing for ever and whether on balance it occurred to you that this was a good thing or not.
They didn't even make judgments like that. In 1961 I was 35 years old 36. I was a kid having a ball. I was like Nixon Nixon was having a ball. I'm sorry to keep stressing this about him that he enjoyed what he like was the game. A friend of mine working for Governor Rockefeller tells of Rockefeller taking Nixon around in his helicopter one day. To show him the scene on Long Island the growth of population. And he said Nixon was absolutely bored but had no interest at all that he's worried about. What he can do to get a headline again. Why did he go to China. It makes no sense at all. Nixon in China. Somebody wrote an opera about it. It's absurd.
Goodman I hear Marty and then I'm and I have the last question.
Bill before I wrap up but go back to that night and the heights. Yes. See you haven't even started yet. No. But did you see this game as being different than the one you would go to high school and college.
I don't think so because we were coming out of the very boring Eisenhower years. I mean there were Sleepytime the silent generation as as college students recall. And.
It's. What I just sense that I don't think even if there were a debate this was a momentous occasion I would what Senator Kennedy said in the very first words of the debates where you know this is going to decide where the world is going to be half slave and half free.
I think I believed it. And I think everybody did.
And I even you know Nixon didn't do badly but he did not have what it took. He did not know how to get the country moving again. So so I think we knew it was going to be a momentous election and it was the momentous debate which was which as if I could do the moderators prog and takes us back to Bill.
What hath. You. Right.
In other words you had this night or this campaign another one can't.
But what changed because of what you said or the media strategy for that campaign was that I had two video trucks one on the in the West and one in the east and we covered countless rallies and would buy time in regional television. It was the basis of our television advertising campaign. And we didn't make commercials because they cost too much to put on the networks and we were getting bigger bang for our buck if he spoke in Illinois buying television stations in Michigan and Pennsylvania and Indiana and we did. I would say five of these a month. And then we had OK crowds just OK after the debates those crowds went crazy. The numbers were nuts. Then we really had a television show in terms of what we were doing which was doing three or four rallies on regional television all over the United States.
Believe it or not as we conclude there are some numbers based on research done after the election that support what's been said up here. One of them believe it or not in 1960 if you've been watching Mad Men you know this there were focus groups back then and there was an outfit in New York I believe called Schwerin. Right who who used to gather people from the New York metropolitan area and groups sometimes as large as 300. They had people together for all four of the presidential debates and it turns out that the Kennedy Nixon margin in terms of the perceptions of those people was approximately two to one for the whole series of four debates. Even more interestingly perhaps Elmo Roper. A giant in the polling industry did the research for CBS after the election was over and he found almost half his very large sample saying. That the debates had played a role in their decision about who to vote for and of that half. There was a noticeable plurality for Senator Kennedy but there was one little sliver of his sample 6 percent roughly 4 million people who said the debates were everything. This was what they base their vote. And in that group Kennedy was ahead by four to one if you do the math. He won by a hundred and twelve thousand popular votes.
There's the margin of the debate and the Houston ministers conference where the two giant pillars the I love the late night just tell your story.
But Houston Ministerial Association it was September 12th he had to face the Catholic issue goes to Houston he's getting dressed puts on his blue suit can find his black shoes he says to Dave Powers his aide wear my black shoes he said Senator. I think I forgot them. We're at the Cuyahoga County ox roast yesterday. So Kennedy puts on his brown shoes goes down borate Dave Powers things over he comes out great performance gets by the LVB goes after Dave Powers. Dave Fante exasperated says Senator I'm sorry it'll never happen again but I've got to tell you that was a brown shoe crowd if ever I saw.
And I guess part of the lesson tonight is that Bill Wilson.
This transcript is machine-generated and has not been corrected. It is likely there will be errors.
- John F. Kennedy Library Foundation
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- Kennedy Advisors Ted Sorensen and William Wilson, along with veteran journalists Russell Baker, Marty Nolan, and Sandy Vanocur, who covered the televised presidential debate, reflect on that historic event and how presidential debates have changed over time. Tom Oliphant, the Pulitzer Prize-winning former Boston Globe reporter, moderates.
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Speaker2: Sorensen, Theodore C.
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- Chicago: “John F. Kennedy Library Foundation; WGBH Forum Network; 50th Anniversary of Kennedy/Nixon Debates,” 2010-09-22, WGBH, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (WGBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC, accessed February 21, 2019, http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip_15-nc5s756t96.
- MLA: “John F. Kennedy Library Foundation; WGBH Forum Network; 50th Anniversary of Kennedy/Nixon Debates.” 2010-09-22. WGBH, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (WGBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Web. February 21, 2019. <http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip_15-nc5s756t96>.
- APA: John F. Kennedy Library Foundation; WGBH Forum Network; 50th Anniversary of Kennedy/Nixon Debates. Boston, MA: WGBH, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (WGBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Retrieved from http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip_15-nc5s756t96