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Debates have come a long way since 1960

By Sander Vancur, 10/3/2000

S THE ONLY living member of the press panel in the first Kennedy-Nixon debate, I fear that I am expected to have deep thoughts about the historic event in Chicago on Sept. 26, 1960. I don't.

I subscribe to the dictum laid down many years ago by the late Eddie Lahey of the late Chicago Daily News. ''Every good general assignment reporter should have the depth of a one pound box of candy.''

Historic moment? While I do not fully embrace John F. Kennedy's theory that history is gossip or Henry Ford's remark that history is bunk, I did not realize that I was part of a great historic event that day in Chicago.

A week before the debate, when I was on the campaign trail with Nixon, I was told by someone at NBC News in New York that I was to be the network's reporter on the press panel. (The other panelists were Stuart Novins of CBS, Bob Fleming of ABC News, and Charles Warren of Mutual News.)

I left the Nixon campaign in Jackson, Miss., on Saturday, Sept. 24, boarded the Gulf Mobile and Ohio Panama Limited, went to the dining car - where each table had a lovely yellow rose in a vase - and wrote out my questions.

On the afternoon of Sept. 26, the panel joined moderator Howard K. Smith of CBS News and producer-director Don Hewitt of the CBS affiliate. (CBS produced the debate).

Hewitt had us sit down in our chairs, which faced the podium and the chairs that would be occupied by Kennedy, Nixon, and Smith. He had us practice our turns when we would turn to the cameras and tell the audience who we were. That was the sum of our preparation.

As best I remember, Nixon was first to arrive at the studio a few hours later, Kennedy followed. Kennedy wore a blue suit. Nixon wore a gray suit. Kennedy was tanned because he had followed the advice of Governor Abe Ribicoff of Connecticut, the first Democratic governor to endorse Kennedy, that if you have a perpetual tan, people will think you are better off than you really are.

Nixon did not have a tan. What we did not know was that Nixon had banged his knee against the car door as he got out, aggravating a staph infection that had hospitalized him earlier in the month, and he was in pain. I did not know that Nixon had refused makeup or that Kennedy actually had some light powder applied to his face by an aide, Bill Wilson.

The press panel did not see the debate as viewers did. The television monitor faced the candidates. We looked at them with our naked eyes, which is not the same view that television provides. I did not know how Nixon looked in his gray suit against a gray background.

What I do remember is that Nixon had some sweat on his chin and addressed too much of what he said to Kennedy rather than to the television camera directly in front of him. Kennedy, apart from a few fleeting glances at Nixon, addressed his remarks directly to his camera and to America.

When the debate ended, the candidates shook hands and left the studio. Who had won the debate? Who had lost? There were no spinmeisters around to tell us. The prevailing wisdom of the time was that those who had seen the debate on television thought Kennedy had won. Those who had heard it on the radio thought Nixon had won.

All I sensed that night was that Kennedy had probably done a great deal to counter the idea that he was nothing more than a rich and callow young man. But as the years passed and I had a chance to look at the debate on videotape, I formed a more profound conclusion: Presidential candidates in a television debate should never wear a gray suit.

Sander Vanocur, who covered the 1960 campaign for NBC News, is host of ''Movies in Time'' on The History Channel.