A little over four years ago Senators Barack Obama and John McCain squared off in a series of presidential debates as historic as the debates between Vice President Nixon and Senator Kennedy a little over four decades ago. The Nixon-Kennedy debates were the first ever televised, in the format of the times, black and white. The Obama-McCain debate was ironically more historic -- the candidates themselves were Black and White.
Four years later, President Obama will debate former governor Mitt Romney. Less historic? Maybe. Equally as contentious? Definitely. Will there be dirty tricks during the debates reflecting this increasingly dirty presidential campaign? Doubtful. Except those woven into the "message."
Were there dirty tricks during the Nixon-Kennedy debates. Absolutely.
Nixon-Kennedy Debate Dirt
I have an insider back story on the first Nixon-Kennedy debate. From a highly placed media mogul, a man not prone to hyperbole, much less outright lies. He was in the room, he helped negotiate and orchestrate the debates. And the dirty tricks too.
I was just a kid, so of course I wasn't there. Some have heard this story and believe it to be apocryphal. I heard it from the horse's mouth and from many other Democrats and reporters over the years. I am totally convinced it's true. You decide.
Most historians agree if the first debate had been judged on substance alone, Nixon was the clear winner. Those who listened on radio thought so too. But through the new medium of television, millions of viewers saw more than they heard.
Television watchers loved Jack Kennedy. Dick Nixon gave them the creeps.
We now know that's a more accurate picture than anyone could have imagined. But at the time, it wasn't real. The debate was live, the candidates supposedly appeared on camera just as they did in person. A black and white picture, to be sure, but still, recognizable and clear.
Yet TV viewers were tricked by artifice. Here's what the public saw:
A pale, fidgety Richard Nixon, face sweating profusely, eyes darting, body often slumping, looking pasty, old and clearly uncomfortable. Not a pretty picture. Not much to inspire confidence.
At the other podium youthful, tan, fit Jack Kennedy faced the camera squarely, spoke directly to the people. Poised, calm and dry. The perfect picture of a confident Commander in Chief.
Here's why. My source was a Kennedy man. It was well known Nixon had a pronounced 5 o'clock shadow and tended to sweat a lot. Plus, he'd had recent knee surgery and wasn't feeling well. All of which made Nixon vulnerable to --irony of ironies-- dirty tricks.
My source The Orchestrator instructed station engineers to turn off the air conditioning in the studio. Oh. Yes. He. Did. Small space, big cameras, hot lights. The temperature soared. And Nixon was cooked.
JFK stayed cool and collected. At each break, he got a fresh towel, a dusting of talcum powder and a brand new duplicate shirt, tie and jacket.
Though younger and untested, Kennedy eventually proved to be a man of substance. Just like Barack Obama. So what I want to know is this: when is Obama going to turn the hot lights of intelligence and gravitas on the empty wax figure of Mitt Romney?
I fear too many "undecideds" will watch the debates as Reality TV, tuning out the rhetoric and focusing on the glam factor. Even if they listen, they will hear only what they want to hear. I can get you jobs. I can lower your taxes. I can turn this straw into gold. (Just like the gold I inherited plus took from business special interests). But they won't hear how. At least not from Mr Romney.
For the sake of all of us, I can only hope President Obama has some good tricks up his sleeve to expose Mr Romney for the dangerous, elitest, disconnected, rich guy he is. Or we will never get past the 10-Word Answers to the Meat of the Message, to how we can continue to get the job done.