The Great Nixon-Kennedy Debates—I Was There

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Historic televised debates celebrates 50th anniversary

By Daniel Meltzer

The historic televised “Great Debates” between presidential candidates Richard Nixon and John Kennedy took place in the fall of 1960. Many of you surely saw them on TV at the time. I saw one of them at even closer range. I was there.

As a young page for ABC Television, just starting out in my broadcasting career, I was present in the network’s cavernous Studio One on West 66th Street in Manhattan before and during the fourth debate. Although it was a half-century ago, it remains an event vividly etched upon my memory.

The two candidates stood behind lecterns at a carefully measured distance apart, as agreed upon by both camps. I stood only a few feet away from them.

Each had arrived by limousine hours in advance. Their cars were driven up the building’s loading ramp and on to the floor of the studio. (In a former life, it had been a riding academy for equestrians.)

Nixon, already heavily made-up to conceal his jowls and five o’clock shadow, hustled silent and grim-faced with his wife Pat past the waiting reporters corralled behind a velvet cord in the studio. Kennedy, accompanied by a very pregnant Jackie and their daughter Caroline, walked straight to the cord to shake hands with and greet several reporters by name, as well as the stagehands. He and his brother Robert had both been to our studios during the campaign for interviews on the Sunday talk show, Issues and Answers.

The candidates spent the hours before airtime with their entourages in identical two-room in-studio cottages designed and constructed specifically for the occasion. Each cabin was thoughtfully designed, fully furnished, wood-paneled and carpeted, equipped with working bathrooms and individually controlled air-conditioning. The exteriors were equally well-appointed: wooden siding, faux windows, latticework with faux vines, roofs, “plantings” and picket fences surrounding both cottages, separated enough from each other to prevent eavesdropping from one upon the other. The dismantling and destruction of both cottages began immediately after the debate ended and the candidates had left the building. There was another show loading in the next morning and the “set” had to be struck.

The debate itself was a clear “win” for Kennedy, as they like to say in the business. He seemed well prepared, relaxed and articulate, his easy smile a clincher for many fence sitters, I imagined. Nixon, still nervous and, hard as he tried, looking a bit angry and perhaps resentful at having to be on camera, under the hot lights, with an opponent possessing a smoother tongue, seemingly easy command of the issues and “movie star looks” to boot. The camera “liked” Kennedy, as we say. It had a hard time just getting to know Nixon.

Aside from my impressions of both candidates from their entrances and their demeanors, I was further alienated from Nixon after one of his aides sent me out to get coffee and a carton of cigarettes from the local drug store, took his change when I returned, and didn’t tip me. I would soon cast my first vote in a presidential election. If I had been undecided before that day, I had no doubt now about whose lever to pull.
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Daniel Meltzer is a playwright, an adjunct professor of journalism at New York University and former senior writer and editor for CBS News.

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