[Oct. 14, 1960] Side by Side (the third Presidential debate)

Submitted for your consideration, a logistical nightmare.

Imagine you are a television producer hosting the first ever series of TV Presidential debates.  Both candidates of the two parties that matter have agreed to spar on a weekly schedule, and each event promises to be a ratings bonanza.  Your first two shows live up to expectations, and you lick your chops in heady anticipation of number three.

And then you learn that your special guests are busy campaigning on opposite sides of the country that day. 

What do you do?  The show obviously must go on!  Thank goodness for Bill Bradshaw of Cincinnati’s WKRC and his stunning invention, “Split Screen.”  You may have seen examples of this technique in recent episodes of Howdy Doody; two completely different images are stitched together, live, so that they can be seen at the same time by the viewer.

As a result, even though last night Jack Kennedy was in Los Angeles, and Dick Nixon was in New York, through the miracle of Split Screen, the two were closer to each other than ever before.  The third debate was quite a spectacle.

Interestingly, though the presentation was wildly different from the previous debate, the format was identical.  Neither candidate was allowed an opening or closing statement.  Rather, they were once again grilled by a panel of professional grillers, two from the networks, and two from print media.

Here’s what the candidates had to say:

If the Formosan islands of Quemoy and Matsu made a guest appearance in the last debate, they were full-fledged co-stars in this one.  In the last debate, these two pieces of real estate just a few miles off the coast of Red China, ownership disputed by Chiang Kai Shek and Mao Tse Tung, were dismissed as indefensible by Senator Kennedy and declared the frontline for Democracy by Vice President Nixon. 

The third debate opened up as if the second had never stopped with a question of Senator Kennedy: “You’ve called the Vice President ‘Trigger Happy’ over Quemoy and Matsu; are you willing to stand up for West Berlin?”

Without blinking an eye, Kennedy asserted that, as President, he would stand by all of our allies whose sovereignty we had guaranteed by treaty, particularly West Berlin.  Nixon, flustered, assured his audience again and again that Republicans are not “Trigger Happy,” and that it was the Democrats who had led us into war the last three times.

At this point I fished around my junk drawer for some twine to wrap around my face, my jaw having fallen quite open.  It was an awfully silly move to suggest that American involvement in the two World Wars and Korea were somehow bellicose acts, and to imply that a Republican would have sat idly by and watched 1) the Kaiser smash the Allies, 2) Hitler enslave Europe while Japan enslaved Asia, and 3) Communism triumph over the entire Korean peninsula. 

In response to the next question, the Vice President refused to detail the level of response to which he would commit over Quemoy and Matsu.  He had difficulty articulating why his desire to defend the islands was so much greater than President Eisenhower’s. 

The Senator noted that Quemoy and Matsu did not fall under the ambit of the 1955 Treaty under which America guaranteed the defense of Formosa.  Nixon countered that Kennedy had been one of the few Senators to oppose an amendment to that treaty which expressed a resolution to defend the islands, nevertheless. 

But then the Vice President suggested that the loss to Mao of two small spits of earth would be tantamount to Chamberlain’s appeasement of Hitler.  Kennedy lunged in with a cutting jab (I paraphrase): “I can’t see why the Vice President is so concerned over Quemoy and Matsu, five miles from Red China, when he showed so little concern over the Communist takeover of Cuba, 90 miles from Florida.”

When the Vice President later defended the Eisenhower administration’s record on stopping the spread of Communism, specifically in Indochina, Senator Kennedy once again singed his opponent noting that Communism hadn’t been stopped in Tibet, Budapest, Laos, Guinea, Ghana, or Cuba. 

In the last debate, Kennedy stated that America should not attempt another summit with the Soviet Union until the nation was militarily stronger so as to have a better position from which to negotiate.  When asked in this debate to articulate his point further, the Senator stated that our airlift capacity needed to be immediately improved so that we could more quickly come to the aid of beleaguered allies.  He also urged rapid deployment of the Minuteman and Polaris nuclear missile systems.  Kennedy encouraged a stronger push toward disarmament discussions and an end to above-ground nuclear testing. 

Nixon’s response was characteristically (for this debate) weak, echoing Kennedy’s points but mostly saying that Eisenhower hadn’t been sitting on his thumbs when it came to defense and pushing for disarmament.

Domestic issues were the subject of about half of the debate.  Kennedy proposed granting the executive office more methods to resolve labor disputes.  The Vice President wanted to keep a largely hands-off approach.  The Senator discussed reviewing and potentially reducing depletion allowances, tax credits offered to energy companies.  Nixon asserted that these credits were vital to the nation’s economy. 

Speaking of the economy, the Vice President wants to accelerate its growth was to lower taxes, reduce racial discrimination, and stimulate higher education.  Kennedy noted that the Republicans had blocked every attempt to pass legislation that would do those things. 

On the issue of reducing the trade imbalance, which is depleting our nation’s gold reserves, Nixon said he would balance the budget, increase exports, and encourage other countries to support the poor countries in Latin America and Africa.  Kennedy said “ditto” (though he took much longer to do so) and added that he would try to get other nations to eliminate tariffs on American goods.  Neither candidate was particularly strong in this segment.

A nice moment came when Kennedy was asked what he thought of the Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard’s declaration that he was voting for Nixon.  The Senator graciously defended the Vice President, insisting that in no way should Nixon be identified with the racist group.  The Vice President took the opportunity to declaim racial discrimination, repeating his first debate point that it is not only wrong and economically debilitating, but makes us look bad in front of the Russians.

Speaking of first debate echoes, Kennedy again maintained that his budget was balanced despite the emphasis on new programs.  Nixon called Kennedy’s plan a “mirror game,” and that it must unbalance the budget.  He went on to criticize the Senator’s suggestion that the national debt might be reduced through inflation.  That’s not quite what Kennedy had said, however (Kennedy noted that he did not recognize his proposals when paraphrased by Nixon).  Rather, the Senator had proposed interest rates be lowered to reduce the interest burden on the debt. 

The debate wrapped up with a question on how one might measure the prestige of the United States, which Kennedy insists is on the decline.  The Senator proposed four methods: 1) counting the number of countries trying Communist rather than Democratic governments, 2) gauging the success a superpower has in outer space, 3) Gallup polling, 4) and tabulating support for U.S. initiatives in the United Nations. 

Nixon’s response was that it was defeatism and the giving up Quemoy and Matsu that would lead to a loss of national prestige.  Otherwise, we’re doing just fine.

And there the contest ended.  I don’t know about you, but it was definitely the Senator’s night.  Kennedy came off feisty and detailed; Nixon was stuttering and vague.  I imagine that, if you are fine with the policies of the current administration and think Nixon will continue with more of the same, you’ll be happy to cast your ballot for the Vice President.  But if presentation sways you at all, I suspect you drifted just a little bit to the Left last night.

Up next: fiction reviews!

8 thoughts on “[Oct. 14, 1960] Side by Side (the third Presidential debate)”

  1. Thank you from the screenless South. Kennedy defending Nixon does sound very gentlemanly, and I expect it rightly won him points? It sounds as if both put a pretty good show, neither caught flat footed on any of the tough questions.

    Well produced, that producer.

    1. There were a couple of times that Kennedy blathered, though pleasantly.  Nixon was definitely less comfortable.  I’m not sure what was wrong.  Perhaps he works better with an in-person adversary.

  2. Definitely a win for Senator Kennedy, but at this late date I wonder how many people are going to be persuaded one way or another. I suppose he might convince some Dixiecrats that it’s acceptable to vote for a Catholic, but I also think that few of those unreconstructed Southerners who have a hard time voting for the Senator because of his religion will find it any easier to vote for a Republican.

    For me the real story is the technology. The split screen was a fine way to let us see both men as they debated, and the producers didn’t try to fool us into thinking they were in the same place. Not only were the debaters on opposite sides of the country, the moderator was in Chicago!

    1. I can see this sort of screen-in-screen technology being particularly useful when worldwide satellite broadcasts become reality. 

      Speaking of religion, I Kennedy definitely shooed Nixon into a corner on that issue.  The Vice President had to bend over backward to assure his audience that religion was not an issue and bigotry was not tolerable. 

      One has to remember that there is value in just getting one’s folks to the polls.  The debates may not change anyone’s mind on who is the better candidate, but it may motivate some people to vote.

      1. On the religious issue, Kennedy made a strong speech about that about a month ago.

        “I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute . . .”

        That’s a powerful statement, and one I respect.

  3. While I continue to support Mr. Nixon over Mr. Kennedy, it’s impossible to deny that Mr. Nixon doesn’t measure up in “TV presence.”  While the televised debates might have looked like a good idea to start with, I think he’d be well-advised not to do a fourth.  He’s an experienced politician, but his kind of politics come from a pen, not a lectern.

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