Television made a grand, sweeping entrance into the presidential political arena, becoming a tertiary, occasionally biased and highly visible invisible determinant in the contest, 49 years ago yesterday. Nearly half of the country tuned in to watch the first debate on 26 September 1960--which would actually be considerably more than half of the voting population—for a first-ever nationally visual spectacular of seeing two presidential aspirants face each other. Nixon turned from being an aspirant into a perspirent: deciding not to use makeup and sweating badly under the heat of the studio lighting, Nixon looked dark and foreboding compared to the just-returned–from-California Kennedy, tanned and nicely tailored Also of course Kennedy had that charisma bit going on, and spoke very well, was charming, and funny—most of which Nixon was not, though he did have his (version of the) facts under command, had a certain presence because of being Vice President for eight years, and was a formidable debater.
But things did not go well for Nixon in the debates, and probably cost him the election which was determined by a squeaky-small margin of 49.7% to 49.6% (34,220,984 to 34,108,157) of the popular vote. But as we have seen recently the popular vote doesn’t mean anything if you have the electoral college, which Kennedy had reasonably wrapped up 303 to 226. Too bad the Kleig lamps didn’t do their magic in 1968.
What I’d like to address here was the (very little known?) second-tier, non-existent but evidently proposed debates between the candidate’s wives.
I own a small archive of Jacqueline Kennedy-iana that came to me via her first, pre-White House press secretary, Gladys Uhl. Among these 50-odd pieces is this fantastic response from Mrs. Kennedy’s office regarding the proposed wives’ debate.
The edited typed-carbon response reads: “I agree with Mrs. Nixon that a debate between the candidates’ wives would serve no purpose and I also agree that clothes should not be an issue in this campaign.”
The penciled note at top reads: “Clear with Mrs. Kennedy and I will phone to AP – G” (The “G” being Gladys Uhl, the press secretary.) The note at bottom, from Mrs. Kennedy, reads: "In answer to your request for comment."
And so ended a truly bad idea, cut to the quick by Mrs. Kennedy and Mrs. Nixon, thankfully sharing the belief that the wives of candidates needn't get officially involved in the presidential contest.