The defining debates

SINCE I WAS AT RINGSIDE when the only knockout punch in a presidential debate was delivered (Kennedy whipping Nixon in 1960), I am often asked about what I saw from close up.

First, was it really a knockout? Yes, but this outcome wasn't apparent on the night of that TV debate in Chicago - the first national presidential debate ever. Indeed, only a few moments afterward, I was asked by a TV interviewer, "Who won?" and I said I didn't know - that both men had, as I saw it, performed well.

Three other newsmen who had been traveling with the candidates were on that hastily-pulled-together TV panel of post-debate assessors. And to the audience that had just viewed the debate, we all said much the same: That we had seen no major glitches or any moment when either candidate had clearly pinned his opponent to the mat.

Then the interviewer again asked me, "Who won?" I said I didn't believe that either man had scored a decisive edge - but that it would be up to the viewers to determine the winner. The other panelists said much the same.

I had been given a particularly good view of the debate. From my seat in the studio only a glass window separated me from the candidates - I could see the real show taking place only a few feet away or look at the TV screen above my head.

Oh, yes, just before the TV interview ended, I added an observation that made a lot of Nixon supporters very angry.

I said what I thought everyone could see - that Nixon looked a little tired. I quickly gave an explanation - that the vice president had been laid up for a while with a leg ailment and, although he was fine now, he hadn't yet caught up with his weight.

I said something like that. But I had no idea the debate would turn on how the candidates looked. Indeed, I thought I was providing a useful explanation - not a negative comment.

Well, within a very few hours after the debate the verdict came in. The bulk of viewers had thought that Nixon had looked tired and downcast and that Kennedy had looked buoyant and smilingly vital.

Therefore - don't ask me about the logic of this - these viewers, or most of them, had decided that Kennedy was the clear winner. Never mind that those who listened to the debate on radio and based their decision on what was being said came to an opposite conclusion: that Nixon was the winner.

But the TV verdict was all that counted. Kennedy had come into that first presidential debate as the underdog. He was behind in the polls and Nixon was favored to win the election.

But the first poll afterward showed Kennedy had come far up in the voters' estimation and had taken a slight lead over his better-known adversary. The debate had turned the election around. Nixon was never able to catch Kennedy. And now we're headed for some more presidential debates. Gore has already shown himself to be an accomplished TV debater with impressive wins over Ross Perot and Jack Kemp.

Bush has never debated on the national stage.

So Bush likely will be, again like Kennedy, the underdog - not a bad position to be in.

After the Nixon-Kennedy debate, I filed my story and finally got to bed about 2 a.m.

I'd just dropped off when the phone rang and it was my editor, Erwin D. Canham, telling me that he was hearing from people all around the country who were terribly upset with my TV performance.

"What in the world did you say?" he asked. He had missed my post-debate TV critique.

And then, before I could say a word, Mr. Canham said, "They don't like it because you said Nixon looked tired."

So I said, "But he did look tired."

"Yes," said Canham, "but they think you shouldn't have said it."

And then that great editor, always unflappable, said: "Well, he did look tired. And you did just right. Now get some sleep."

Later, as the TV public's negative response to his performance became clear, Nixon people said he had suffered from poor or insufficient makeup. All I know for certain is that Nixon lost that debate for superficial reasons: How he looked.

What a way to decide on our next president. But that was the way it was.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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