Politics & Government

How Nixon-Kennedy debate changed politics

On a Saturday 50 years ago, NBC correspondent Sander Vanocur was told there was going to be a presidential debate on Monday.

And he'd better start thinking up questions.

The president of CBS, Frank Stanton, had just struck a deal between the camps of Vice President Richard Nixon and his Democratic challenger, John F. Kennedy, for a series of "radio-television discussions."

The CBS station in Chicago, WBBM, would host the opening debate. It would be the first in a general presidential campaign in the history of the republic. It probably would be pivotal because 1960 was shaping up to be one of the closest races for the presidency in modern times.

Vanocur, 82, is in town today to kick off a Kansas City Public Library series of expert commentaries on the four Nixon-Kennedy debates. He was NBC's White House correspondent during the Kennedy administration and later a senior analyst for ABC until 1991.

To Vanocur, the first debate was little more than an assignment. An assignment that required pulling an all-nighter on a train rumbling north from Mississippi, where he had been covering the Nixon campaign for NBC.

"I got on the Panama Limited, sat down in the dining car and wrote out my questions," he recalled.

In Chicago, he and his colleagues from ABC, CBS and Mutual Radio rehearsed with Don Hewitt, the man who would go on to create "60 Minutes."

"He had us practice sitting down in our chairs and saying, 'I'm so and so,' and then we left," Vanocur recalled. "We did not discuss questions. It was very simple."

"I thought both of them did well," Vanocur said of the candidates. "The key thing to me is that other than the 1956 Democratic Convention, when Estes Kefauver battled Kennedy for the vice presidential nomination and won, I don't think all that many people had seen Kennedy on television. I think they knew he was an Irish Catholic, but I think they didn't know that much about him."

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