Last week was the 50th anniversary of the televised debates between John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon. The debates, in which the telegenic Kennedy beat a nervous-looking Nixon, have become a fable in American politics for the importance of appearances. Ted Sorensen, Kennedy’s aide and speechwriter, looks back.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now on to another contest between Nixon and a nemesis, this one waged out in the open in the inaugural session of America’s quadrennial gladiator games.
HOWARD K. SMITH: Good evening. The television and radio stations of the United States and their affiliated stations are proud to provide facilities for a discussion of issues in the current political campaign by the two major candidates for the presidency.
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BROOKE GLADSTONE: Last week marked the 50th anniversary of the first televised presidential debates between Nixon and John F. Kennedy. Kennedy looked tan and healthy, whereas Nixon, one observer reportedly said, looked like “a sinister chipmunk.” Thus did U.S. politicians learn the importance of being telegenic. Ted Sorensen, who was at the debates as Kennedy’s aide and speechwriter, told us that Kennedy’s prep consisted mostly of being quizzed on information written on little blue cards, hour after hour, with one break for a speech, then more blue card sessions, then finally a rest in his hotel room. But, as the hours passed and the debate loomed closer and closer, the candidate had yet to emerge.
TED SORENSEN: Everybody was getting a little nervous. We were supposed to be at the Chicago CBS affiliate studio one hour before the debate, and it was getting close. So I was picked on to go wake up the candidate, not an easy thing to do. So I opened the door, and the light was on. He was lying there sound asleep, covered in blue cards.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And when you woke him up, he was fresh as a daisy.
TED SORENSEN: Yes, he was.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: He wore a dark suit, so he stood in stark contrast to the light background, while Nixon was clad in gray, which faded into the walls. Much has been said of Kennedy’s good looks, his confidence, his avowals of independence and experience which reassured the doubters within his own party. But is TV, with its emphasis on style over substance, really the best forum for these debates?
TED SORENSEN: People like to pooh-pooh Kennedy’s “style” so-called. It was style that helped him get his program through Congress. It was style in his appearances at the United Nations and on other world platforms that helped him build respect for the United States and its president. It was style that enabled him to establish communication with Nikita Khrushchev that in the end helped both of them avoid a nuclear holocaust at the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis. So I don't pooh-pooh style. I think voters should not cast their vote on the basis of looks. Style by itself is not enough, but I think television is a better indication of whether this candidate is going to be a successful leader of the American people and communicator of our values to the world. So yes, I would keep the debates on television because that helps turnout at the polls. It helps educate people about the issues. That’s democracy.
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BROOKE GLADSTONE: Former Kennedy aide and speechwriter, Ted Sorensen.