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.