Category Archives: presidential debates

Merriman Smith saw nothing like the 2016 presidential campaign

It’s hard to compare the 2016 presidential campaign with those Merriman Smith covered.

Smith reported on seven presidential campaigns as UPI’s chief White House reporter. He covered Franklin Roosevelt’s 1944 re-election, Harry Truman’s surprise win in 1948, and Richard Nixon’s 1968 triumph. Every campaign he covered was a contest between men with deep experience in politics. Their rhetoric focused on policy and ideology. There was no talk of entertainers like Rosie O’Donnell, or revelations of beauty pageant winners’ weight problems.


Second Kennedy-Nixon debate, October 7, 1960. The questioners’ backs are to the camera. Al Spivak is the second questioner from the left. (UPI Photo via Wikimedia Commons)

The talking points of the 2016 campaign would be alien to Smith and his contemporaries. They worked in an era of sober Washington coverage and were more steeped in policy than show business.

But Smith would have understood one element of this year’s campaign. In September 1964, Smith took note of the presidential candidates’ mudslinging. “Sen. Barry M. Goldwater has called President Johnson a liar,” he wrote. “The Chief Executive in turn obviously regards his opponent as a ‘raving, ranting demagogue’ … [T]his sort of thing happens in every national political campaign. The unusual aspect this year is that it became so bitter so soon. Cries of liar and warmonger ordinarily are not heard from the principals until about mid-October.”

We’ve been hearing cries of liar and warmonger right along in 2016, though not necessarily from the campaign’s principals. But Smith was right about this: mid-October is about when presidential campaigns turn intense. That’s true this year. For the Donald Trump campaign, the intensity came a few days early. It began with the revelation October 7 of 11-year-old audio in which Trump brags of committing sexual assault. It continued the following days with women’s revelations of how Trump groped or harassed them. Around the same time, WikiLeaks began disclosing Hillary Clinton campaign internal emails.

Al Spivak, a former UPI reporter who covered the Kennedy White House with Smith and Helen Thomas,  was a questioner in the second debate between Kennedy and Richard Nixon, held October 7, 1960. Spivak asked Nixon and Kennedy about civil rights and relations with the Soviet Union. Here are some of his recollections about the 1960 debates and how they compare to those between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton.

I was a panelist on the second of four Kennedy-Nixon debates.  This followed by several weeks the first debate, which probably cost Nixon the election because of his wan appearance and Kennedy’s outwardly robust appearance.  Recall that one or more polls showed that people who heard the debate on radio thought Nixon won, while those who viewed it on TV gave JFK the nod.

All four panelists on the first debate were broadcasters — understandable inasmuch as the networks were providing the time and facilities for the debates.  However, the print press — newspapers and wire services — were still of far more importance in those days than now, and an outcry went up from them that they were unrepresented on the panel of interviewers.  So the Kennedy and Nixon campaigns came together and selected by lot two print newsmen for the second debate, to be held in Washington in October.  I was one of those selected and the late Hal Levy of Newsday was the other.  There also were two broadcasters, Paul Niven of CBS and Edward P. Morgan of Mutual Broadcasting.  There were two more debates, the third which also included two print people among the four panelists and the fourth on which all four panelists were broadcasters.  There was no vice presidential debate.

The media buildup, as I recall it, was not as big — for those days, there were no 24/7 cable TV news networks, which in my mind are an atrocity.

Some other differences:  in 1960 there were four presidential candidate debates, not three like today.  There were NO televised primary campaign debates (such as those which this year were also atrocities).  Each of the 1960 debates lasted one hour — not 90 minutes, which I feel is too long if only for the physical toll it takes on the candidates.

How did the debates work in 1960 compared with later ones?  Certainly, the first of the JFK-RMN debates mattered, though I doubt the next three did.  In later years, the Reagan-Mondale debate mattered [Reagan and Mondale debated twice in 1984], though I don’t know to what degree. So did the Bush-Gore one, when Gore’s sighs turned out to his detriment. [Gore sighed in the first of his three debates with George W. Bush in 2000.]

Oh yes, another important difference.  The 1960 debates were held in TV studios with no audience present.  Now the debates are held in arenas or theaters with big audiences that are admonished to be quiet — but as you probably observed, that is never the case.  In the primaries, the formats as well as the participants were disgusting.  Next step is for the networks to work out a deal with Italy to restore what’s left of the Coliseum from ancient Rome and hold the debates there, perhaps with some lions and gladiators to prod the candidates.

Merriman Smith covers the 1960 presidential debates

The media buildup to the 2016 presidential debates between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump far exceeds that of the 1960 Kennedy-Nixon debates.

The first 2016 presidential debate was expected to draw a Super Bowl-size TV audience. An Associated Press story called it a “must-see showdown,” and The New York Times billed it as “among the most highly anticipated presidential debates in American history.”

John F. Kennedy, Merriman Smith

Kennedy and Nixon in their first debate at a CBS studio in Chicago. (National Archives/Richard M. Nixon Library)

Compare that to the curtain-raiser story Merriman Smith wrote with United Press International colleague William Theis before the first Kennedy-Nixon debate on September 26, 1960 — 56 years to the day before the first Clinton-Trump matchup.

The two reporters didn’t seem to think the Kennedy-Nixon debate, held in a Chicago TV studio, was as monumental as the Clinton-Trump meeting. They wrote that  it would merely “add steam to the presidential campaign.”

Their story went on:

As far as open conflict is concerned, Kennedy and Nixon have been skirmishing lightly thus far in the campaign for the White House. There has been some sniping and counterfire over Nixon’s feeling that Kennedy should not discuss American shortcomings with Soviet Premier Nikita S. Khrushchev in the country, but this has been somewhat intermittent ….

Kennedy and Nixon regard the debates as a make-or-break factor in the campaign. But now, bolstered by large crowds on the campaign trail, Kennedy’s advisers feel the debates are somewhat less monumental.

Nixon advisors, by contrast, felt the debates could sway undecided voters, the story said. That seems in line with the thinking of the Trump and Clinton campaigns this year.

Smith followed up the candidates’ second debate in Washington on October 7, 1960 with a behind-the-scenes report.

He noted that the Washington TV studio was chilled to 64 degrees — “too cold for Kennedy; not cold enough to keep Nixon from perspiring.” Kennedy said the studio was so cold, “he might feel like having a sweater.”

Kennedy also complained that the studio lights facing him were brighter than those facing Nixon. On the other hand, Smith reported, someone told him that Nixon’s people really wanted more light.

Smith’s story, printed in newspapers on October 8, included bullet-pointed items about other aspects of the debate.

— Makeup. Kennedy wore none. His only concession was a late afternoon shave. Nixon, with a much heavier beard, wore what appeared to be full TV makeup. His staff called it “light” …

— Cut-away or reaction shots (a closeup of one man while the other one was talking). The Nixon people wanted no part of them. The Kennedy people liked the idea. There were a few.

— Drinking water. Secret Service agents checked the vice president’s water. Studio officials assumed a similar check would be made to protect Kennedy’s water, but the Secret Service said no thanks, the law assigns them only to the President and the vice president.

— Tally lights. This is pretty inside stuff … A tally light tells the performer when the camera is on. Kennedy’s little red bulb burned out 30 seconds before show time and his handlers thought that since the senator’s light was out, Nixon’s should be doused too. It wasn’t.

Kennedy and Nixon debated four times on TV. Over the 56 years since, there’s been a lot of talk about whether Nixon’s perspiration or beard hurt his election chances. Judging from the polls, it’s hard to say for sure. Gallup polls always showed the 1960 race as a lot tighter than the 2016 contest.

Robert F. Kennedy — Kennedy’s campaign manager — believed the debates helped put his brother in the White House, Smith reported. Without the debates, Robert Kennedy said, his brother “wouldn’t have been close” to beating back a late surge in Nixon support.