PITTSBURGH — “The things Senator Kennedy has said many of us can agree with,” Vice President Richard M. Nixon conceded early on in his first debate with Sen. John F. Kennedy on Sept. 26, 1960.
“Well, obviously,” Mr. Nixon said later, “my views are a little different.”
Still later, Mr. Nixon said, “I agree with Senator Kennedy’s appraisal generally in this respect.”
These televised debates, the first ever, have been analyzed a million times, and the usual spin is that Mr. Kennedy won because he looked better than Mr. Nixon, who tended to sweat a little and who seemed to be wearing a suit a size or two too large. It was the way Mr. Nixon demurred to Mr. Kennedy, who was supposed to be the inexperienced innocent in these debates, that mattered most.
Mr. Nixon treated Mr. Kennedy in that first debate as an equal, and surely that was a tactical mistake.
It would come as shock and awe if Mitt Romney said at any time in his first debate with President Obama on Wednesday night that he agreed with many of the things the President was saying or that he generally agreed with any appraisal Mr. Obama offered. Mr. Romney is very likely being briefed to attack the President and give no quarter.
It wasn’t until the second Kennedy-Nixon debate, on Oct. 7, that things began to get a little nasty.
The question that started it off came from ABC’s Edward P. Morgan. “Senator, on Saturday you said you had always thought that Quemoy and Matsu were unwise places to draw our defense line in the Far East. Would you comment on that and also address to this question: couldn’t a pullback from these islands be interpreted as appeasement?”
Mr. Kennedy seemed a little startled. “Well,” he said, “the United States has on occasion … uh,” and he wandered off to give in agonizing detail the geography of the situation while seeming to suggest that the United States should only defend the islands if they were part of an overall attack on Formosa (Taiwan) itself.
For the record, Quemoy and Matsu are part of a 19-island chain within artillery range of mainland China and 100 miles from Chiank Kai-shek’s Formosa. Mr. Chiang’s nationalist Chinese held the islands (their descendants still do), and China wanted them back (it still does).
All these years later, this seems trivial, but at the time it was dynamite. Fire-breathing Republicans had long argued that the appease-minded Democrats had lost China to the communists and hadn’t drawn a line in Korea, and here was their candidate for president refusing to draw a line at these little islands.
Mr. Nixon saw the opening.
“I disagree completely with Senator Kennedy on this point. … These two islands are in the area of freedom. The Nationalists have these two islands. We should not force our Nationalist allies to get off of them and give them to the communists. … I am against it. I would never tolerate it as president of the United States, and I will hope that Senator Kennedy will change his mind if he should be elected.”
Score a point for Mr. Nixon.
Almost certainly harsher words will be said, over and over again, Wednesday night. Politics these days, after all, isn’t for the faint of heart, but it was in 1960, in that second debate, that it all began.
People say, if only these debates could be like those famous outdoor debates between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas in 1858. Yet, Mr. Lincoln’s words would be shouted down in any political arena today. “I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races,” Mr. Lincoln said at Charleston, Ill., on Sept. 18. “There is a difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality.”
“I do not understand,” he continued, “that because I do not want a negro woman for a slave I must necessarily want her for a wife.” But he had gone far enough — he opposed slavery — to start a civil war after his election as president two years later.
Televised presidential debates didn’t pick up again until 1976.
“There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe, and there never will be under a Ford administration,” President Gerald Ford declared in the second debate. And he didn’t stop there. “I don’t believe that the Yugoslavs consider themselves dominated by the Soviet Union. I don’t believe that the Romanians consider themselves dominated by the Soviet Union.” Then, for good measure, he threw in the Poles.
What he was trying to convey was that the Yugoslavs and the Romanians and the Poles did not accept Soviet control and in their hearts still longed to be free. But that’s not what he said, and it was a disaster. (The audio shut down for 27 minutes during the first debate and the two candidates stood there, behind their podiums, not saying a word to one another until it came back on. Divine intervention, perhaps.)
Do debates matter? Jimmy Carter thought so. “If it weren’t for the debates,” he said, “I would have lost.”
The Block News Alliance consists of The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. James M. Perry, chief political correspondent of the Wall Street Journal until his retirement, will be contributing regular observations as part of The Block News Alliance’s election blog coverage.