JFK was just short of the majority needed to gain the nomination, but on the eve of the Democratic National Convention, former President Harry Truman attacked JFK’s youth and inexperience, arguing that other Democrats (e.g. Stuart Symington, Humphrey) were much better candidates. Robert Kennedy contacted NBC (both Kennedys saw CBS as pro-LBJ) in order to immediately respond. On 4 July 1960, only NBC covered JFK’s press conference live (CBS showed up late); JFK was at his rock star best, pointing out that as a Representative and then Senator, he had more experience in elected office than did Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, and Harry Truman before they were nominated.
In 1960, TV shifted the entire nature and balance of political exposure, and millions saw the first JFK/Nixon Presidential Debate. The effect in terms of the benefits and costs to the winner and loser were so great that it wasn’t for another 16 years until there was another Presidential debate on television . . . there was simply too much to lose.
The historical mystery is why Nixon agreed to debate JFK on TV. Nixon did so in part because he served as his own campaign manager (which proved to be a huge liability/mistake). NIxon, at that moment, probably thought only in terms of benefit, not potential cost, when he agreed to the televised debate. Nixon was also fearful of dealing that charges in the media that he refused to debate JFK, and that the criticism wouldn’t go away for the rest of the campaign. Nixon also saw TV as an inevitable development in the changing landscape in politics. Nixon had benefited from the power of television in 1952 with his “Checkers Speech”, and NIxon discovered that TV allowed him to do things his way instead of the Republican Party’s way.
Nixon, under stress, would sweat quite a lot (the thermostat in the studio for the second debate was set at 60 by his aids), but any discussion of his “sweating problem” was forbidden. As the 1950s progressed, Nixon overall developed more animosity and antagonism. Every now and then, Nixon would come out like a caged animal in response to stories in front of reporters; he was an insecure, profane man that too often lost control. As Nixon rose in politics, it became less fun for those that worked for him, and some talented people in the world of television refused to work with/advise Nixon in 1960.
Perhaps the main reason for Nixon’s many political mistakes during 1960 was that he served as his own campaign manager. Nixon did so because, in his perspective, he had been nothing but President Eisenhower’s gopher for eight years, and 1960 was his time to be in control, and his time to shine. Nixon wanted all the credit for the success of the campaign to head his way; he was bitter about the past, about Ike, and what he considered to be Ike’s less-than-stellar political talents. Those that worked with Nixon earlier saw him in 1960 as someone that resembled a megalomaniac . . . no one could tell Nixon anything, including the idea that it may not be the best political move to debate JFK on television.
Nixon’s nature was to exclude people, and his soulmate in that regard was H.R. Haldeman; it was darkness reaching for darkness. Haldeman knew how to advance his own power/influence by isolating Nixon, which meant that he was the closest to the source of power. Nixon, acting as his own campaign manager, and encouraged by Haldeman, went to Alaska (to fulfill his ridiculous 50 state campaign promise) instead of focusing on crucial swing states like Texas, Illinois, and his home state of California; the bosses of the Republican Party were furious. Vice-President Nixon was so bitter about his treatment by Ike then when it was arranged for (a reluctant) Nixon to finally meet the President and ask him for some campaign support, Nixon told Ike that he had “done enough”, which infuriated Ike. Nixon got his petty revenge, but it cost him votes.
All of Nixon’s insecurities, doubts, and inner tensions were on TV for people to see and judge. Nixon looked terrible, and he was sweating profusely. It was a madhouse in the TV control room with Nixon’s people wanting less reaction shots of their man, and JFK’s people wanting more reaction shots of Nixon. Neither JFK or Nixon, as they left the studio, understood what had occurred on TV (Nixon believed that he had won). But after each candidate talked to their aids, it started to dawn on each what had occurred. JFK discovered that at least he didn’t lose the televised debate when Chicago’s Mayor Richard Daley came to see him personally for the first time. The next day, JFK discovered that the crowds gathered to see him were greater in number and much more enthusiastic.