By David E. Hubler
Contributor, In Homeland Security
On Tuesday, Oct. 15, the nation will witness the largest presidential debate ever. Twelve now well-known Democrats will crowd the stage at Otterbein University near Columbus, Ohio, for the fourth debate in a series that will continue through April 2020.
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Each hopeful — eight men and four women — will be seeking to impress the millions of Americans watching on TV and social media or listening on the radio. Former Vice President Joe Biden, the current front-runner, will take center stage flanked by his closest rivals, Senators Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Bernie Sanders (I-VT).
The candidates will answer questions posed by moderator Erin Burnett and journalists Anderson Cooper of CNN and Marc Lacey of The New York Times. There will also be impromptu questions and answers among the candidates themselves. In all, 15 people will be on stage.
How the presidential debate format has changed in almost 60 years!
Televised Presidential Debates Began with Two Men and a Moderator
Televised presidential debates began simply enough. On September 26, 1960, two men sat almost facing each other between moderator Howard K. Smith under hot Klieg lights in a bare TV studio in Chicago.
A perspiring, ailing Richard Nixon and a relaxed and confident John F. Kennedy made television history in the first of four presidential debates seen live on black and white TV screens by more than 70 million Americans.
Nixon-Kennedy Debates Came at the Height of the Cold War
The Nixon-Kennedy debates came at the height of the Cold War and less than three years after the Soviet Union had launched its historic Sputnik I, the first satellite in space. “That launch ushered in new political, military, technological and scientific developments,” NASA said. It also marked the start of the U.S.-Soviet space race.
Unbeknownst to the principals and everyone watching, these two political foes introduced a new factor into the American political process – the critical importance of a good public image. That remains true today, if not more so, in this age of instant media coverage.
First Nixon-Kennedy Debate Was a Study in Image Contrasts
Vice President Nixon was trying to overcome a bout with the flu. His makeup – a ploy to hide his heavy “five o’clock shadow” – began to run under the hot lights and mix with his perspiration. His light gray suit blended with the drab backdrop of the studio set.
Instead of looking into the camera when answering questions, Nixon looked toward a group of reporters off-stage whom the TV audience did not know were there. Looking off camera gave viewers the impression that Nixon had something to hide and called to mind his “Tricky Dick” nickname.
“Reacting to the vice president’s on-air appearance Chicago mayor Richard J. Daley reportedly said, ‘My God, they’ve embalmed him before he even died.’” Even Nixon’s worried mother “immediately called her son to ask if he was ill,” History.com reported.
Senator Kennedy was fit and well-rested because he had spent the previous few days in a Chicago hotel with his advisors preparing for the debate. So when Kennedy answered questions, he calmly looked directly at the American people.
Positive TV Image Gave the Debate Win to Kennedy
How important was image? Radio listeners “called the first debate a draw or pronounced Nixon the victor, the senator from Massachusetts won over the 70 million television viewers by a broad margin,” History.com said.
Nixon was no stranger to TV. Running as Eisenhower’s VP candidate in 1952, then Senator Nixon’s forceful public refutation of charges of financial irregularities saved his spot on the Republican ticket headed by WWII hero Dwight D. Eisenhower.
Nixon’s TV address became known as the “Checkers speech,” after the family dog who was strategically at his side throughout his master’s remarks. Politicians then and now are not averse to employing visual images to get a point across, as we will see again below.
Going into the 1960 debates, Nixon was a foreign policy expert who had served as President Eisenhower’s vice president for nearly eight years. Kennedy was a first-term U.S. Senator from Massachusetts, best known for his World War II naval exploits in the Pacific and for his large, wealthy New England family. Kennedy’s grandfather had been a powerful and beloved Boston mayor, and his father served as President Roosevelt’s ambassador to Britain during the war.
A month and a half after their debates, “Americans turned out to vote in record numbers,” History.com reported. “As predicted, it was a close election, with Kennedy winning the popular vote 49.7 percent to 49.5 percent. Polls revealed that more than half of all voters had been influenced by the Nixon-Kennedy debates.”
Presidential Debate Format Has Grown since 1960
Since that initial Nixon-Kennedy confrontation, the debate format has grown in the succeeding 59 years to include many presidential hopefuls — not all of them politicians. But no legitimate candidate has been able to avoid the presidential debate crucible, which might even include an occasional trick to gain a visual advantage over an opponent.
A former colleague of mine who worked on Ronald Reagan’s first presidential campaign in 1980 told me how he used his years in the media to score visual points against President Jimmy Carter at the conclusion of one of their debates.
Before the start of the debate, my colleague said he noticed that Carter’s microphone was being wired inside his suit jacket, down one pants leg and then taped across the stage floor out of sight. So he wired Reagan with a clip microphone (known as a lavalier) on his lapel and let the mic cord hang straight down inside his suit jacket.
When the debate was over, Reagan quickly unclipped his mic, walked over to President Carter and shook his hand in a gesture that could only be read as respect for the President and good sportsmanship.
But because of his wiring, Carter was immobile. He could only stand there, smile and shake Reagan’s hand at his podium. According to my colleague, polls after the telecast showed that viewers were favorably impressed by Reagan’s gesture.
Carter-Reagan Debate Trick Gave Reagan a Boost in the Polls
That November, Ronald Reagan defeated Carter in the election, becoming the first President since Herbert Hoover to serve only one elected term. Carter’s loss was due primarily to high inflation and the Iranian hostage crisis. But the public also remembered Reagan’s simple act of well-choreographed respect.
When the dozen Democrats take the stage at Otterbein University on Tuesday, each presidential hopeful will have only one goal in mind — to project a good public image in words and style. That image just might lead to the presidential nomination next July at the Democratic National Convention in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.