The First Debate Over Presidential Debates

If this year's debate over presidential debates seems rough, try arranging the first televised presidential debates in American history. It took eight years!

In the early 1950s, as president of CBS, I suggested to my colleagues at the network that it would be wonderful if we could have presidential debates. The problem was Section 315 of the Communications Act of 1934, which required you to give equal time to all the candidates. There were numerous bona fide candidates in the '52 campaign, so it was impossible to contemplate debates within the framework of the rules.

If Eisenhower and Stevenson had agreed to debate in '52, I would have pushed Congress to change the rules. But Eisenhower wasn't interested. In 1955 I wrote a guest column in the New York Herald-Tribune, saying that if Congress amended Section 315, CBS would provide free air time for the major candidates to debate.

By 1960 I was ready to try again. First I wanted to find out whether the potential candidates would actually debate. It was early in the year, and I went to see Nixon in the Capitol; he was vice president. His aide said, "You don't have to see him. He was a champion debater at Whittier College. He'll be terrific." So I trotted on down the hall to see my friend Lyndon Johnson, the Democratic Senate leader. Johnson saw me and said, "What the goddam hell do you want?" I said, "Have you got a minute?" At that point Jack Kennedy, who happened to have been sitting with his back to me, turned around and said hello. I said, "If I get these rules changed, will you debate?" Johnson answered, "Why don't you ask Jack?" Jack smiled and said, "I'll do it."

Subsequently, at a Senate subcommittee hearing chaired by John Pastore, I suggested that Congress adopt a resolution to suspend Section 315 for one election. After the hearing, Pastore, along with Warren Magnuson, who chaired the full Senate Commerce Committee, agreed to support the resolution if I got the votes.

I went to work and got the Senate's support. I found no support on the House side. It was May or June, and I wanted to have this legislation passed before the conventions that summer. I knew that Gene Autry, the cowboy-actor who owned a CBS affiliate station, was close to the speaker of the House, Sam Rayburn. I talked to Gene about the resolution and asked if he could help with the speaker. He said, "I'll call you right back." He didn't, but Rayburn's office did. I got the chairman of the House Commerce Committee, Oren Harris, and the two of us went to see Rayburn. The problem was, Rayburn would have to scrap the rules of procedure to bring this thing up at the last minute. Rayburn turned to Harris and said, "Oren, have you got the votes?" Oren turned to me: "Frank, have we got the votes?" And I said yes. I didn't have any idea where the votes were. But I knew that, having gotten them on the Senate side, we could probably get them in the House. And we did. It was time to invite the candidates.

The first debate was held in the CBS studio in Chicago, an old riding academy that still had entrances which had been used for carriages. So when the candidates arrived, they drove right into the building. Nixon got there first. When he got out of the car, he banged his right knee on the door so bad that he almost went down on his knees in pain. After that, he seemed disoriented.

I escorted Nixon into the studio. The control room wanted to take some voice levels on the microphone that hung above the candidate. When Kennedy arrived, Nixon jumped up to shake his hand, and that microphone hit him right in the head.

Kennedy was bronzed beautifully, wearing a navy suit and a blue shirt. Nixon looked like death because he had been in the hospital. And you could run your hand inside his collar without touching anything--it was that loose. His color was terrible; his beard was not good and he didn't want any makeup. I felt sorry for him.

When the debate was over, I went to thank the candidates. Nixon's Secret Service man told me he was gone. I said, "Well, his coat and briefcase are right here." "Yes," he said, "he left without picking them up."

Then I went over to the room where Kennedy was. It was very dark, except for where Kennedy sat under a hanging lamp. He was on the phone speaking to someone in his immediate family. At one point he said, "Well, we sure took this one." His sleeves were wet with perspiration down to his wrists. When he hung up we shook hands and he said, "You know Dick Daley?" referring to Chicago's mayor. I hadn't even realized Daley was there. We said hello and Daley asked me if I wanted a ride downtown. As we walked down the hall he said, "You know, I'm going to change my mind and tell my men to go all out for Kennedy." He meant that he hadn't been supporting Kennedy with any enthusiasm until that debate. And his support made an enormous difference, because Illinois determined the election.