On 26 September 1960 two of the most fascinating men in US politics, Senator John F. Kennedy (1917-1963) and Vice President Richard Nixon (1913-1994), met in Chicago to take part in the first-ever presidential debate on television. Seventy million people tuned in to watch as the pair parried questions from four political reporters.
Nixon was the hard, calculating survivor, who had done his time as vice president, while Kennedy was perceived by some as merely the unsubstantial son of a Wall Street tycoon. Yet in front of the cameras, the man the novelist Norman Mailer described as having ‘the deep tan of a ski instructor and the piercing eyes of a mountaineer’, succeeded brilliantly in charming the American people.
‘Kennedy was tanned because he had followed the advice of Governor Abe Ribicoff to always look like you are better off than you really are’ — NBC reporter Sander Vanocur
One of the journalists in the studio that evening was NBC reporter Sander Vanocur (1928-2019), who would reflect in 1985 that ‘as time goes by, people tend to build these things into great moments. I should have thought this was the beginning of the new age, political television. I didn’t.’
What the veteran reporter did recall was that Kennedy wore a blue suit, while Nixon’s was grey: ‘Kennedy was tanned because he had followed the advice of Governor Abe Ribicoff to always look like you are better off than you really are.’
Nixon on the other hand, looked ill. What the panel did not know, was that the Vice President had recently banged his knee against a car door, aggravating a staph infection that had hospitalised him earlier that month, and he was in tremendous pain. According to Peter Klarnet, Christie’s senior specialist in Americana, Books and Manuscripts, Nixon also refused to wear make-up, drawing attention to his pale complexion.
‘The importance of how a politician looks begins in earnest with Abraham Lincoln, who took office at the start of the age of photography,’ says Klarnet. ‘Those vivid likenesses of his lean, gnarled face very much moulded the public’s perception of the President.’
What also struck Vanocur on that historic night, however, was how Kennedy spoke into the camera, addressing the American people, while Nixon directed most of his comments to Kennedy.
Unlike today’s presidential duels, the Kennedy-Nixon contest was respectful, leading the British journalist Alistair Cooke (1908-2004) to observe wryly that, for two men who openly detested each other, little bloodshed was spilt as they laboured under the strain of good behaviour. He ended his article for The Guardian by describing the opponents as ‘two bloodhounds done up in party frocks’.
‘The debate was a milestone for Vanocur. Kennedy was known at times to leave his notes lying around, so it is possible he picked them up as a souvenir’ — specialist Peter Klarnet
The most memorable moment of the night was when Vanocur invited the Vice President to explain why Eisenhower, when asked to give one example of a major idea of Nixon’s that he had adopted, replied, ‘If you give me a week I might think of one. I don’t remember.’
Nixon deflected the question well, yet it plagued the candidate for the rest of the campaign, and has gone down in history as one of the toughest questions ever to be put to a presidential hopeful. Nixon’s response was even parodied in the cartoon series The Simpsons.
‘It was harsh, because until Dick Cheney, vice presidents had very little power or influence,’ says Klarnet. ‘I don’t think the Nixon campaign ever forgave Vanocur, and rumours started to circulate that the question had been planted by the Kennedy campaign.’
Vanocur dismissed the charge angrily. ‘I worked goddamn hard on that question, and it was the most glaring question one could ask,’ he said, claiming that he had been just as unforgiving on Kennedy, interrogating him on his track record of failing to pass any legislation in the Senate. Years later though, he admitted that his question to Kennedy ‘didn’t even come close’.
From 1 to 16 October, notes written by Kennedy during the debate will be offered in the Fine Printed Books & Manuscripts Including Americana online sale. A video recording of the debate, made during Nixon’s rebuttal of Kennedy’s argument that the nation was ‘standing still’ economically, shows Kennedy writing while Nixon asserts that wages have risen ‘five times as much’ under Eisenhower.
What happened to the manuscript directly after the contest is unknown, but at some point, it came into the possession of Vanocur. ‘The debate was a big milestone for him professionally,’ says Klarnet. ‘Kennedy was known at times to leave his notes lying around, so it is possible he picked them up as a souvenir at the close of the broadcast.’
The other theory is that Kennedy gifted the manuscript to Vanocur when the journalist was covering the Kennedy White House administration. The inscription reads, ‘For Sandy with esteem and warm regards from his friend John Kennedy Feb. 9, 1961.’
Two years later, Vanocur had the unhappy task of reporting on the President’s assassination. He was also on the scene when Kennedy’s brother was shot dead in California
Two years later, Vanocur had the unhappy task of reporting live from the White House on the President’s assassination. He was also on the scene when Kennedy’s brother Robert was shot dead in California, describing the aftermath as ‘sheer chaos’. He was later credited by Time magazine for his cool demeanour and exemplary reporting.
Until 2019, the manuscript had been on long-term loan to The Newseum in Washington, D.C., and featured in the institution’s exhibition Every Four Years: Presidential Campaigns and the Press in 2012. When the museum closed down last year, the notes were returned to Vanocur’s family, and they are now offered for sale.
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On the 40th anniversary of the debate in 2000, Vanocur was asked to look back on that historic evening. With characteristic dry humour, he said: ‘I sensed that Kennedy had probably done a great deal to counter the idea that he was nothing more than a rich and callow young man. But as the years passed and I had a chance to look at the debate on videotape, I formed a more profound conclusion: Presidential candidates in a television debate should never wear a grey suit.’