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Game Changer: First Nixon/Kennedy Debate

After he awoke from his nap in his Chicago hotel room that beautiful September day in 1960, Jack Kennedy took one more trip up to the hotel roof to breathe in the fresh evening air. Then he went back downstairs, piled up his note cards, dressed himself in a black suit and dark tie, and descended to the lobby. After waiting for a few minutes, he got into a car and headed over to the television studio to meet his opponent, Vice President Richard Nixon. Anticipation filled the air. Pressure on both candidates was intense. This would be the first presidential debate ever to air on television. Seventy-four million Americans would tune in to watch the vice president duke it out with the young, idealistic senator from Massachusetts.

The two candidates shook hands, then took their seats on the darkened stage. CBS journalist Howard K. Smith, the debate’s moderator, sat at a wood-paneled desk between them. The room was hushed. Cameramen positioned themselves. Smith leafed through his questions once more and cleared his throat. The candidates steeled themselves. Lights flooded the studio as televisions flickered on across the nation. Nixon, pasty and underweight from a recent hospital stay, couldn’t shake his sick appearance. He sat uncomfortably on the left side of the stage, his back rigid in an uncomfortable pose. His light-colored suit further washed out his already-pale face. Sweat beaded on his chin.

On the other side of the stage, Kennedy sat poised, confident, and self-assured. He bounded to the podium and launched into his introductory statement, cameras focused on his youthful, handsome, distinguished face and his perfectly combed hair. Unlike his opponent, he displayed vim and vigor, beckoning Americans to look forward into the future, not backward into the past. He was the candidate of change, representing the hopes and dreams of all who had come of age during a very frightening time.

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