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50 Years Ago, JFK-Nixon Debate Changed Politics

John F. Kennedy, Richard M. Nixon At Debate

John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon at the first televised presidential debate at the old CBS 2 studios, 630 N. McClurg Ct. Photo: AP

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It changed the face of American politics and took place in Chicago 50 years ago in the old WBBM-TV studios.

The Nixon-Kennedy presidential debates were the first ever to be televised. The match-up highlighted the importance of image and playing to the cameras in politics.

Sunday, CBS 2’s Bill Kurtis moderated a panel discussion about the watershed moment, with some key players in the debates. As Vince Gerasole reports, their observations at times differed about what we learned in the history books.

The lesson: An apparently calm and confident John Kennedy connected with millions of TV viewers while a pale and sweaty Richard Nixon seemed ill at ease.

“It didn’t look that way with your naked eye, what it looked like on television I don’t know,” said Sander Vanocur, a journalist who was in the WBBM studio firing off questions to the presidential candidates.

Vanocur says he had no idea the debates would be remembered as they are today.

“The rest of the nation was watching and saw it on television and it looked different, particularly Nixon wearing a gray suit in front of a gray drape,” he said.

The unflattering contrast, plus Nixon’s five-o’clock shadow and perspiration, seemed to be magnified by the cameras. Kennedy’s tan skin and dark suit, plus his knack for looking directly into the lens instead of at panelists, somehow connected with viewers.

Or did it?

“I think that’s way, way overblown,” says Newton Minow.

Minow, who would later chair the FCC under President Kennedy, helped negotiate the circumstances that led to the two-candidate debate.

“It was an experiment and it changed history, ” he says.

Minow believes the expectation that presidential contenders will debate side by side is the true legacy of the debates. No one in 1960 expected that the subtleties of image could trump policy.

“Vice President Nixon, who I met later and talked to, I think he regretted very much his decision to participate,” Minow said.

Some listening on radio said it seemed like Nixon won. But as many as 74 million Americans were watching on television, and the medium became an overnight unexpected game-changer in our political system.

CBS 2 moved out of the WBBM-TV and radio studio and office building, at 630 N. McClurg Ct., in September 2008. The building was demolished the following year.