Here at the Chicago Museum of Broadcast Communications an exhibit on that first Kennedy-Nixon debate is on permanent display. In fact, this old RCA TK-2 was used as Senator Kennedy's close-up camera.
Forty years later, politics and television have now grown inseparable and today, the nationally televised debate is the main event of the presidential campaign.
Tonight, a program we believe is historic in its own right. Over the next two hours we will revisit the dramatic and sometimes pivotal moments of past presidential debates. But we'll do so with the help of a very select cast, the candidates themselves.
For the sole purpose of this program, I interviewed the candidates who've participated in every presidential and vice presidential debates since Kennedy-Nixon. And I talked only with the candidates. As you will see and hear, theirs is truly a unique perspective.
PRESIDENT BUSH: It's like a ballgame in a way. There's a certain adrenaline factor -- the adrenaline flow. Very much like competitive athletics, which I love.
PRESIDENT CARTER: I think I did go in as though it was an athletic competition, or a very highly charged competitive arrangement.
PRESIDENT FORD: I had that experience many times playing football for the University of Michigan, and that was my attitude before that first debate. I felt comfortable with the positions I would take and I was anxious to get into the ballgame.
JIM LEHRER: We talked with most of the candidates within the past year. However a few, including our visit with President Ronald Reagan, occurred some ten years ago. A couple of notes: Vice President Al Gore and Ross Perot declined to be interviewed for this program and because of ill health, former Senator Lloyd Bentsen was unable to participate.
People sitting home in front of their television sets on that September night 40 years ago could not have imagined they were watching the face of American politics change forever. But it was. And that very first presidential debate had an immediate impact as well.
It gave John Fitgerald Kennedy a golden opportunity to introduce himself to millions of Americans all at once. For Vice President Nixon, however, it probably was a major political miscalculation that cost him the election. Nixon had been sick and his advisers urged him not to debate Kennedy. He was leading in the polls and they feared sharing a debate stage with Kennedy could give the young senator equal standing in the eyes of voters.
SENATOR KENNEDY: I should make it very clear that I do not think we are doing enough; that I am not satisfied as an American with the progress that we are making. This is a great country, but I think it could be a greater country. And this is a powerful country, but I think it could be a more powerful country.
JIM LEHRER: Richard Nixon agreed to debate John Kennedy and the rest is history. The hot lights, the awkward introduction of the reporters, the lazy shave powder Nixon used to try and cover up his five o'clock shadow, and the beads of perspiration that began to show.
VICE PRESIDENT NIXON: Where then do we disagree. I think we disagree on the implication of his remarks tonight and on the statements that he has made on many occassions during his campaign to the effect that the United States has been standing still.
JIM LEHRER: Nothing that was said that night is included among the great moments in American political rhetoric. What's remembered are the pictures of a relaxed and confident-looking John F. Kennedy scoring points with viewers at the expense of the more experienced and better known Richard Nixon.
PRESIDENT CLINTON: I was 14 in 1960 and I watched the debates on television I wasn't conscious then, because I was only 14 and I didn't know anything about it, that - about the difference in the two campaigns and how much better Kennedy had thought about television as a medium, how he should look, how he should be made up, how it was important to come across in a certain way.
SENATOR DOLE: I was listening to it on the radio coming into Lincoln, Kansas, and I thought Nixon was doing a great job. Then I saw the TV clips the next morning and he was sick. He didn't look well. Kennedy was young and articulate, and sort of wiped him out.
JIM LEHRER: Kennedy and Nixon debated three more times in 1960, but those appearances couldn't match the impact of that first one. And then the presidential debates disappeared for the next 16 years.
In the weeks leading up to the 1964 election, President Lyndon Johnson was well ahead in opinion polls and saw no reason to debate his Republican opponent, Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater. Richard Nixon also refused to debate when he again ran for president against Vice President Hubert Humphrey in 1968 and against South Dakota Senator George McGovern in 1972. No one could accuse Nixon of miscalculating when the results of those elections came in.
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