8 Decades of The Hollywood Reporter
A political analyst once compared presidential debates to the Indianapolis Speedway, with the audience watching "to see somebody crack up in ﬂames." If that's the case, then in 1960, Richard Nixon, who was 47 at the time, had the mother of all crashes. The vice president's debates with Sen. John F. Kennedy, then 43, would be the first televised at a time when TV's use in politics still was emerging. Everyone knew TV was critical as the number of U.S. households with televisions grew from 11 percent in 1950 to 88 percent in 1960, but the finer points on its power were being refined. Nixon was in awful shape the night of the first debate, simulcast on CBS, ABC and NBC from CBS Studios in Chicago and moderated by Howard K. Smith. Nixon had been hospitalized 12 days earlier for a knee infection, then whacked the same knee on a car as he arrived at the studio, had a temperature of 102, was taking antibiotics and declined to use makeup to cover his heavy beard (though an aide applied an over-the-counter cosmetic called Lazy Shave). Kennedy, on the other hand, looked movie-star perfect: He'd been campaigning in California, which helped his tan, had plenty of rest and had discreetly gotten a makeup touch-up before arriving. "When it was all over," said the late Don Hewitt, who directed the debate and later produced 60 Minutes, "a man walked out of this studio president of the United States. He didn't have to wait till Election Day." One poll showed Kennedy had gone from even to a 48-to-43 percent lead immediately after the broadcast, which THR said drew an audience of at least 60 million. He eventually won the election by a margin of just one-tenth of one percent. As for Nixon, he was elected president in 1968 but declined to debate that year or in 1972.