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Kennedy-Nixon debate changed politics for good

First televised debate didn't turn on words

By Bruce Morton
CNN Political Unit

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The presidential debate between Sen. John F. Kennedy and Vice President Richard Nixon in 1960.

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The first televised debate between presidential candidates, which took place 45 years ago Monday, not only had a major effect on the 1960 election, it changed America politics for good.

The candidates in 1960 were Democratic Sen. John F. Kennedy and Republican Vice President Richard Nixon, and the debate turned, not on what they said about the Cold War or civil rights.

In fact it didn't turn on what they said at all. The key factor was makeup.

Nixon arrived at the CBS station in Chicago after a hard day's campaigning-speech to a labor union and so on.

He was tired, still not fully recovered from an infected knee.

He declined CBS's offer of makeup, but one of his staff dabbed his face with something called LazyShave, which was supposed to hide his five o'clock shadow.

On TV it looked so bad that producer Don Hewitt, later the man in charge of "60 Minutes," got a CBS executive to ask the Nixon camp if they were happy with the way their man looked. They said yes.

Kennedy, in contrast, had spent he day relaxing, fielding practice questions. He had a California tan, though an aide told Hewitt later that Kennedy wore a little makeup, too.

Better than LazyShave, whatever it was.

The contrast was dramatic. Nixon, blotchy and nervous, Kennedy tanned and trim.

Looking at Nixon, Chicago Mayor Richard Daley reportedly said, "My God, they've embalmed him before he even died."

TV viewers thought Kennedy won the debate easily. Radio listeners mostly called it a draw, but there weren't nearly as many of them.

Debates, in any case, came to stay.

We haven't had them every year; Lyndon Johnson didn't debate Barry Goldwater, for instance.

But we've had them most years and they still matter. Remember Al Gore sighing as George W. Bush spoke in 2000? How many votes per sigh do you think he lost?

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