Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

When candidates said 'no' to debates

By Bob Greene, CNN Contributor
updated 7:43 AM EDT, Mon October 1, 2012
John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon exchange smiles beneath glaring lights before their first TV debate in 1960.
John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon exchange smiles beneath glaring lights before their first TV debate in 1960.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Bob Greene: After Nixon vs. Kennedy in 1960, there were no presidential debates until 1976
  • He says Nixon's sweaty showing in '60 helped put candidates off TV debates
  • In subsequent campaigns, neither LBJ nor Nixon debated their rivals
  • Greene: Now debates are nearly mandatory, much as candidates might like to avoid them

Editor's note: CNN contributor Bob Greene is a bestselling author whose 25 books include "Late Edition: A Love Story"; "Duty: A Father, His Son, and the Man Who Won the War"; and "Once Upon a Town: The Miracle of the North Platte Canteen."

(CNN) -- Who can ever forget the electrifying series of presidential debates in which Lyndon B. Johnson, outlining his Great Society program, went head-to-head in 1964 with Republican nominee Barry Goldwater, who boldly stood his ground on rock-solid, small-government ideals?

Or the 1968 debates that America couldn't take its eyes off: Richard Nixon, trying once again to make it to the White House, toe to toe with Vice President Hubert Humphrey in what was shaping up to be a close election with starkly different platforms.

The 1972 presidential debates, of course -- Nixon, who was by then the incumbent, trading verbal body slams with his Democratic challenger, George McGovern, against the backdrop of the Vietnam war -- were like a professional wrestling grudge match, with each excited camp of viewers at home pulling for its man to triumph.

What?

You say you don't remember those debates?

You're right.

They didn't happen.

Best moments from presidential debates
McCain on managing debate expectations
Who has the advantage in the debates?
Clinton: Debates are crucial for Romney

It's an intriguing footnote to modern political history. Televised presidential debates -- the first one of this year's general election will be held in Denver, Colorado on Wednesday -- have become so much a part of the fabric of autumn campaigns that many people assume that the famed John F. Kennedy-Richard Nixon debates of 1960 began an uninterrupted string.

But in fact, after the four Kennedy-Nixon debates, it would be 16 years before there was another debate between a Republican and Democratic candidate.

Brazile: Why debates don't always make a difference

Kennedy-Nixon, for a long stretch, was the anomaly -- the exception to the rule.

Before their debates, no presidential candidates in a general election had debated on radio or television. There had been intraparty, primary-season debates but never one after the end of the summer conventions.

It is part of political lore that, because of Nixon's pale, perspiring look in the first of those 1960 debates, he suffered in comparison with the tan, confident Kennedy, and the TV cameras did him in. Key to the shorthand narrative is that Nixon, not fully understanding the relatively new medium of television, declined to wear makeup.

But there's more to the story than that. Largely forgotten is that Nixon had been hospitalized for two weeks in August, when he had hoped to be out campaigning. He had banged his knee getting out of a car at an event in North Carolina and had developed a serious infection. So, while Kennedy was introducing himself to voters around the country, Nixon was in a hospital bed -- and the newsreel footage of him, in his pajamas, being visited by President Dwight D. Eisenhower did not play well against film of the healthy-looking, vibrant Kennedy working election-season crowds.

By the time Nixon left the hospital, he was in a weakened state. He had the flu and a fever when he arrived in Chicago for that first debate, and had lost considerable weight. He allowed his assistants to apply a drugstore-aisle product called Lazy-Shave to tone down his 5 o'clock shadow, but his ashen appearance, and the perspiration, were as much a consequence of his health problems as anything else.

He lost, and in 1964, with Goldwater as the Republican candidate, President Johnson, who had taken office after the assassination of Kennedy, decided that there was no reason for him to debate. Johnson was well ahead in the polls; he was said to feel that a debate could not help him much but could certainly hurt him, if he did not do well. He sent word that he was not open to participating.

Rosen: How Obama can win debate

There was another factor arguing against presidential debates in the 16 years after Kennedy-Nixon: the Federal Communications Commission's equal-time provision, which mandated the inclusion of all candidates -- fringe ones as well as the nominees of the major parties. (It had been suspended for a year in 1960, when Kennedy and Nixon debated).

So the major candidates could use that as an out, if they preferred not to debate. In 1968 Humphrey wanted to debate Nixon, but Nixon -- still stung by 1960 -- said no.

And in 1972, when Nixon was the incumbent and far ahead in the polls, he barely deigned to say McGovern's name during the fall campaign, much less debate him.

By 1976 a way around the equal-time rule was found: If debates were sponsored not by television networks but by outside groups setting their own criteria, they could be considered news events and thus not required to include minor-party candidates.

That year, President Gerald Ford, having entered office after Nixon resigned, agreed to debate Jimmy Carter. He may have wished he hadn't. It was in one of the debates that Ford said, "There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe," a misstep that changed the course of the election.

Today debates between the candidates -- even when one of them is the incumbent -- are all but mandatory. A candidate would be seen as chicken for not agreeing to debate. (If you thought the Clint Eastwood empty chair at the Republican National Convention this summer caused conversation, just think what a candidate who agreed to debate would have to say about the empty chair of an opponent who declined).

Even post-1976, some candidates tested the waters of skipping debates. In 1980, President Carter chose not to participate in the first one because independent candidate John Anderson was included. Carter's opponent, Ronald Reagan, did show up at that debate -- and even though Carter appeared at the one subsequent debate that fall, Reagan went on to win the election.

Four years ago, Republican candidate John McCain said that he wanted to postpone the first debate in Oxford, Mississippi; he proposed that he and his opponent, fellow U.S. Senator Barack Obama, instead go to Washington to help with the financial crisis. Obama said he would be in Mississippi regardless of whether McCain was ("It's going to be part of the president's job to be able to deal with more than one thing at once"). McCain relented and came to the debate, but his initial hesitation seemed to throw his campaign off balance.

It's unlikely that there will ever be another autumn in which the candidates do not debate, but you never know.

It's a pretty safe bet, though, that come nightfall Wednesday in Colorado, Obama and Mitt Romney will be at their appointed places on the stage. It's how we do things now.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Bob Greene.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 5:01 PM EDT, Wed October 22, 2014
Paul Callan says the grand jury is the right process to use to decide if charges should be brought against the police officer
updated 12:19 PM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
Theresa Brown says the Ebola crisis brought nurses into the national conversation on health care. They need to stay there.
updated 6:35 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Patrick Hornbeck says don't buy the hype: The arguments the Vatican used in its interim report would have virtually guaranteed that same-sex couples remained second class citizens
updated 9:36 AM EDT, Fri October 24, 2014
Paul Begala says Iowa's U.S. Senate candidate, Joni Ernst, told NRA she has right to use gun to defend herself--even from the government. But shooting at officials is not what the Founders had in mind
updated 6:08 PM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
John Sutter: Why are we so surprised the head of a major international corporation learned another language?
updated 5:54 PM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
Jason Johnson says Ferguson isn't a downtrodden community rising up against the white oppressor, but it is looking for justice
updated 12:21 PM EDT, Fri October 24, 2014
Sally Kohn says a video of little girls dressed as princesses using the F-word very loudly to condemn sexism is provocative. But is it exploitative?
updated 4:06 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Timothy Stanley says Lewinsky is shamelessly playing the victim in her affair with Bill Clinton, humiliating Hillary Clinton again and aiding her critics
updated 10:14 AM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
Imagine being rescued from modern slavery, only to be charged with a crime, writes John Sutter
updated 12:00 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Tidal flooding used to be a relatively rare occurrence along the East Coast. Not anymore, write Melanie Fitzpatrick and Erika Spanger-Siegfried.
updated 7:35 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Carol Costello says activists, writers, politicians have begun discussing their abortions. But will that new approach make a difference on an old battleground?
updated 9:12 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Sigrid Fry-Revere says the National Organ Transplant Act has caused more Americans to die waiting for an organ than died in both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq
updated 2:51 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Crystal Wright says racist remarks like those made by black Republican actress Stacey Dash do nothing to get blacks to join the GOP
updated 6:07 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Mel Robbins says by telling her story, Monica Lewinsky offers a lesson in confronting humiliating mistakes while keeping her head held high
updated 9:29 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Cornell Belcher says the story of the "tea party wave" in 2010 was bogus; it was an election determined by ebbing Democratic turnout
updated 4:12 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Les Abend says pilots want protocols, preparation and checklists for all contingencies; at the moment, controlling a deadly disease is out of their comfort zone
updated 11:36 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
David Weinberger says an online controversy that snowballed from a misogynist attack by gamers into a culture war is a preview of the way news is handled in a world of hashtag-fueled scandal
updated 8:23 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Julian Zelizer says Paul Krugman makes some good points in his defense of President Obama but is premature in calling him one of the most successful presidents.
updated 10:21 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
Conservatives can't bash and slash government and then suddenly act surprised if government isn't there when we need it, writes Sally Kohn
updated 8:05 AM EDT, Wed October 22, 2014
ISIS is looking to take over a good chunk of the Middle East -- if not the entire Muslim world, write Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider.
updated 9:00 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
updated 4:33 PM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Hidden away in Russian orphanages are thousands of children with disabilities who aren't orphans, whose harmful treatment has long been hidden from public view, writes Andrea Mazzarino
updated 1:22 PM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
updated 12:42 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
updated 9:45 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
updated 4:43 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Ford Vox says the CDC's Thomas Frieden is a good man with a stellar resume who has shown he lacks the unique talents and vision needed to confront the Ebola crisis
updated 4:58 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
updated 9:42 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
How big a threat do foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq pose to the West? It's a question that has been much on the mind of policymakers and commentators.
updated 8:21 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
More than a quarter-million American women served honorably in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Now they are home, we have an obligation to help them transition back to civilian life.
updated 4:27 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Paul Begala says Rick Scott's deeply weird refusal to begin a debate because rival Charlie Crist had a fan under his podium spells disaster for the Florida governor--delighting Crist
updated 12:07 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
updated 7:53 AM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
updated 12:29 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
At some 7 billion people, the world can sometimes seem like a crowded place. But if the latest estimates are to be believed, then in less than a century it is going to feel even more so -- about 50% more crowded, says Evan Fraser
updated 12:53 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
updated 6:45 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
updated 1:00 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Dean Obeidallah says it's a mistake to give up a business name you've invested energy in, just because of a new terrorist group
updated 7:01 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
updated 1:44 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
updated 9:35 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
updated 10:08 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
updated 7:25 AM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Americans who choose to fight for militant groups or support them are young and likely to be active in jihadist social media, says Peter Bergen
updated 9:03 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Stephanie Coontz says 11 years ago only one state allowed same sex marriage. Soon, some 60% of Americans will live where gays can marry. How did attitudes change so quickly?
updated 4:04 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
updated 9:07 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
updated 6:50 PM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Mel Robbins says the town's school chief was right to cancel the season, but that's just the beginning of what needs to be done
updated 11:43 AM EDT, Sat October 11, 2014
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT