Chicago’s Great Debate

Inside Studio One, the mood was pensive. The unmistakable aroma of freshly applied green paint to a stage set—trucked in from CBS Television headquarters in New York and installed less than twelve hours earlier—wafted unpleasantly through the McClurg Court studio of WBBM.

All day long, technicians fiddled with the lighting in a vain hope of reducing the intense heat likely to cause perspiration and discomfort to the two men squaring off in the first nationally televised presidential debate of the 1960 electoral season—John F. Kennedy, a U.S. senator from Massachusetts, and Richard M. Nixon, vice president of the United States.

Producer and director Don Hewitt of CBS News, best known for creating “60 Minutes,” the television news magazine, in 1968, frantically raced about the studio answering questions and putting out last-minute fires hours ahead of a historic debate that would be witnessed by an estimated seventy-four million viewers. Nervous,exhausted, and badly in need of a shave, Hewitt retired to a bathroom to remove his five o’clock shadow. There was no electric razor. “Can somebody please find me a razor?” he screamed.

It was shaping up to be one of those days.

Outside the WBBM studio, police and Secret Service set up the security perimeters. A crowd of two thousand five hundred or more Chicagoans were expected to clog the narrow sidewalks for a glimpse of the two candidates: Kennedy with his boyish, movie star good looks, and Nixon, whose conservative message resonated among an older generation of Americans. This was not the ideal setting for crowd containment, or even a debate. The 630 McClurg Court building, which CBS took over in 1954, served rich and famous society swells as a horse-riding academy and parade ground for presenting their steeds in high-stakes show competition when it opened in 1924. Later it became the Chicago Arena, hosting ice shows. CBS retrofitted the empty building shell by sinking caissons to support three floors of broadcast studios and offices.

Living in the moment, Chicagoans traded their annihilation anxieties for the excitement of a “Great Debate” coming into their living rooms in glorious black and white.

WBBM filmed an educational program, “Seminar 60,” inside Studio One where Nixon and Kennedy would debate the state of the nation in an hour-long hybrid question-and-answer/debate session moderated by Howard K. Smith, famed European correspondent and one of the “Edward R. Murrow Boys.” During World War II, Smith had been booted out of Germany by Joseph Goebbels for refusing to air Nazi propaganda.

Dignified and reserved, Smith, positioned behind a desk between Kennedy and Nixon, presided over a secluded affair. There would be no studio audience to witness the face-to-face encounter, just four seasoned political reporters seated before them in a middling warm studio—Sander Vanocur of NBC, Charles Warren of Mutual News, Stuart Novins of CBS, and Bob Fleming of ABC.

The 1960 campaign boiled down to a referendum of eight years of Republican rule. The Democrats, perceived as weak Cold War “warriors,” attempted to expose the vulnerabilities of the Republicans through a direct attack against stagnant economic growth. “Education, housing, social security, agriculture are of course important,” countered Nixon, “but they’re not going to do you much good if you’re not around to enjoy them.” Nixon’s comments were crystal clear to everyone anxious about the intentions of Russia.

In 1960, everyone feared the bomb. “Duck and cover” was more than a chilling metaphor of Cold War tension between the Soviet Union and the United States. To every school-age child cowering under their desk during regularly scheduled air-raid drills in that era, it seemed a terrifying, inevitable foreshadowing of nuclear holocaust. The real deal.

Living in the moment, Chicagoans traded in their annihilation anxieties for the excitement of a “Great Debate” coming into their living rooms in glorious black and white. The press inevitably tried to draw profound historical parallels to the famed 1858 Lincoln-Douglas encounters in the prairie towns of Illinois on the eve of the Civil War.

The Chicago American scoffed at any such comparisons, predicting that in 1960 these two seasoned campaigners “are more likely to spar than trade punches.” As products of the emerging television age, “they’ll have to worry about some extraneous questions: should Dick have his heavy eyebrows tweezed or Jack use makeup to soften his jaw line? It’s unfortunate, and it adds nothing to the dignity of the occasion, but TV compels such decisions.”

Senator Kennedy flew in from Cleveland, arriving at Midway Airport aboard a private jet at 5:47 the morning of September 25th. Exhausted by his rigorous campaign schedule, Kennedy briefly napped on the plane before boarding a helicopter for a short ride to Meigs Field and a cheering throng of twenty-five thousand supporters, hosted by his most devoted and enthusiastic follower, Mayor Richard J. Daley, joined by the minions of his Democratic Machine.

Earlier that summer, Daley, savoring his role as an important party “kingmaker” with national influence, rebuffed Adlai Stevenson II , the favorite son of Illinois, at the Democratic Convention, after Stevenson sought his endorsement for a third try at the White House. It was J.F.K. all the way for “Hizzoner” the Mayor.

Police were hard-pressed to keep the runway clear of shrieking fans who elbowed their way forward to shake the hand of the candidate as he made his way to a speaker podium. In a prophetic statement, Kennedy predicted that “Illinois and Chicago can decide this election. I am very impressed and encouraged.”

Things began to turn after the debate; many saw a poised, trustworthy newcomer in John F. Kennedy. (Art by Frank McMahon / www.frankmcmahon.com)

Things began to turn after the debate; many saw a poised, trustworthy newcomer in John F. Kennedy. (Art by Frank McMahon / www.frankmcmahon.com)

After a brief visit with his sister Eunice Kennedy Shriver, wife of R. Sargent Shriver, Midwest campaign manager and former president of the Chicago Board of Education, at her family’s 2430 Lakeview Avenue townhome, it was off to Mass at Holy Name Cathedral. From there, a short motorcade drive to the Ambassador East Hotel and a formal reception hosted by Daley. Moments before J.F.K.’s arrival, Daley’s director of special events, Colonel Jack Reilly, implored the party regulars gathered inside the ballroom to do their best. “Now listen up!” he barked. “I want you to act like the world’s greatest Democratic organization!” In this, the bluest of the blue Democratic strongholds in the nation, the organization hardly needed any coaxing.

Fully aware that he had descended into hostile territory as his plane from Washington, D.C., taxied to the gate at Midway Airport two hours after his opponent, Nixon took a measure of solace in Sun-Times columnist Irv Kupcinet’s confident assessment, “that if the election were held today, it’d be a landslide for Republican Richard M. Nixon … Nixon is 9-5 over Senator John F. Kennedy!”

The Nixon motorcade toured several white ethnic Chicago neighborhoods, making brief stops in the eleventh, twelfth, and fifteenth wards on the South Side before driving on to his headquarters at the Pick-Congress Hotel. Kicking off a draining eleven-state campaign tour, Nixon battled through recent illnesses and had lost five to ten pounds. He traveled without his wife to Chicago and settled in for a good night’s sleep, while inside the Kennedy suite on the seventeenth floor at the Ambassador East, J.F.K. studied his “Nixopedia,” a voluminous compilation of notes, speeches, and remarks made by the vice president since 1948. In these long hours, Kennedy huddled with speech writer and top advisor Ted Sorensen, going over every possible debate scenario.

While Kennedy relied heavily on television exposure, Nixon ordered his press secretary Herb Klein not to commit to any debate, convinced that his eight years of White House experience as President Eisenhower’s understudy worked more to his advantage. Joint appearances with his rival carried a high risk of elevating Kennedy’s public stature among undecided voters. No good could come of it, Nixon reasoned, but he also understood that Kennedy would make political hay of the situation if he flatly refused an invitation to debate lest he be perceived as a coward.

The following morning, the candidates delivered separate speeches to sixteen hundred delegates of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America in town for their annual convention at the Morrison Hotel— for many years the headquarters of the Cook County Democratic Central Committee. In an effort to establish common identity with the tradesmen, Nixon related the story of his father working as a streetcar motorman in Columbus, Ohio, years earlier, and his efforts to organize them into a union local. The vice president spoke for thirty-five minutes; Kennedy for only fifteen; but when it was over the youthful Bostonian garnered the loudest applause. Richard Nixon was truly out of his element in Chicago and his attempt to forge “union solidarity” with his campaign proved unconvincing.

For Richard Nixon, it would be a long and difficult day. Arriving at the studio an hour before broadcast time in his dark blue suit, Nixon grazed his knee on a car door while alighting from his vehicle. It was the same gimpy knee that sent him to a North Carolina hospital weeks earlier following a similar mishap. Then a microphone swung around and accidentally bumped him in the face during final preparations.

Showing scarcely any emotion or concern, Kennedy entered the studio with an air of calm self-assurance. In stunning contrast, Nixon, the veteran logician, appeared careworn, nervous, and lost in thought. His suit did not fit him as well as it should have—he had lost ten pounds during recent illnesses—and the pancake makeup applied to his face in the green room did little to improve his pallid complexion. Up in the control booth, CBS President Frank Stanton expressed his concerns to Nixon staffer Ted Rogers. “Are you sure you like the way your candidate looks?” Rogers nodded weakly.

Don Hewitt made light of a tense moment by warmly greeting the candidates with a bit of jest: “I assume you guys know each other.” Neither man, however, lost his cordial, gentlemanly decorum. Jack and Dick politely shook hands, exchanged small talk, and retreated to their respective corners moments before the program went live at 8:30 p.m. Central Standard Time. Richard Nixon earned respect as a skilled, veteran debater with a reputation for ferocity, although never as reckless or intimidating as Republican candidate Donald Trump fifty-five years later. Quite unlike the abrasive 2016 “shout-down,” neither candidate dared venture into dangerous waters by resorting to ridicule and character assassination.

In strategy sessions, Nixon’s vice presidential running mate Henry Cabot Lodge Jr. and his press team advised a mellow and less aggressive tone to the speech, urging him to avoid making any personal attacks against Kennedy and his vulnerabilities, namely a lack of diplomatic experience in foreign affairs and an East Coast-centric view of addressing national problems. This proved a serious tactical mistake and an opening for J.F.K. “I think Mr. Nixon is an effective leader of his party,” Kennedy stated. “I hope he would grant me the same.”

Kennedy displayed little emotion, but considerable poise. While Nixon directed his remarks to Howard K. Smith seated to his right, Kennedy looked directly at the camera, planting a firm impression in the public mind that he was speaking directly to the people of the United States—not to the moderator. From time to time, Nixon shifted his gaze to the studio clock and wiped away perspiration, appearing gaunt and ill at ease. As his rival answered reporters’ questions, Kennedy did not fidget in his chair or tap the arm rests as his opponent. With pen and notebook, the cool and collected Kennedy calmly jotted notes for rebuttal in a studious and determined manner that did not go unnoticed by television viewers. Mayor Daley later joked that Nixon looked as if he had “already been embalmed.”

The Democratic nominee turned the tables on Nixon by taking the offensive on foreign affairs, an issue that was to have been left off the table in this, the first of four debates. “Are we as strong as we should be?” Kennedy asked. “Are we as strong as we must be if we are going to maintain our independence and if we are going to maintain and hold up the hand of friendship to those who look to us for assistance, those who look to us for survival? I should make it clear that I do not think we are doing enough, that I am not satisfied as an American with the progress we are making.”

Sander Vanocur embarrassed Nixon and put him on the spot by asking him why President Eisenhower, in a recent reply to a reporter’s query about the important decisions the vice president had made in the previous eight years, replied: “If you give me a week I might think of one. I don’t remember.” Nixon fumbled with his response, calling Ike’s words “a facetious remark,” and that it would be “improper for the president to reveal instances where members of the official family affected policy making.” Pat Nixon, the candidate’s wife of twenty years, bitterly accused Vanocur and the reporters of pro-Kennedy bias, a charge not entirely unfounded.

The candidates were each allotted three-minute closing speeches, with Kennedy having the last word. Then, the final “cut” light flashed and the two statesmen of the 1960s exited center stage. “I’ll see you. Good-bye,” Nixon said after the final handshake. Waving to his supporters outside the studio, he smiled and said, “See you later!”

Political reporter Arthur Edson, of the Hartford Courant, detected a “false heartiness in his voice.” Public reaction was mixed. The radio audience seemed unanimous in the opinion that Nixon with his debate skill-craft easily surpassed Kennedy. Television viewers tended to agree with Chicagoan Eugene Dobbs who said: “Nixon did not look well. He looked like he was whipped to a frazzle … not up to his usual self.” Kennedy was seen as the “more glamorous” candidate, the perfect embodiment of the new medium of television, the emerging youth culture and information age when looks, idealism, vitality, and charisma count for everything. The “Kennedy Camelot” rightfully began that warm September evening in 1960 when network television pre-empted the new CBS sitcom “Pete & Gladys,” starring Harry Morgan, to provide viewers with a slick and impressively packaged one-hour civics lesson that gained network news executives instant credibility they previously lacked.

The “Great Chicago Debate” was not only a game-changer in the way candidates conducted political campaigns, but also a moment in our history that redefined the course of future events in the turbulent years of war and recession that laid ahead. Nixon, crippled by his own internal demons, raging insecurities and poor self-image, harbored lifelong resentment against East Coast “Kennedy privilege,” Harvard intellectuals, and the high probability that election-day political chicanery carried out by the Richard J. Daley Machine in the so-called “river wards” of Chicago cost him the November election, one of the closest in American history. Nixon’s deep-seated suspicions and paranoia followed him into the White House in 1968. They would fuel the Watergate scandal and cost him his presidency just six years later.

About the author

Richard Lindberg is a Chicago historian and the author of seventeen published books about the Windy City including “Chicago Yesterday and Today” and the award-winning, “The Gambler King of Clark Street: Michael C. McDonald and the Rise of Chicago’s Democratic Machine.”

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