This Saturday is the 49th anniversary of the first presidential debate between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon. The debate marks a turning point in American political history—the point when television caught up with (and surpassed) newspapers and the radio as the most influential element media through which to campaign.
Nixon famously underestimated the visual power of TV. He refused makeup, against the advice of his television advisor, Ted Rogers, even though he'd just regained health after a two-week illness. As a result, he appeared tired and run-down.
Kennedy, on the other hand, was the picture of health, tanned and ready after campaigning in California—a "bronze warrior," as Rogers described him. The perfect picture of mid-century strength, youth, and masculine glamour.
The radio audience considered Nixon the winner, but unfortunately for Nixon, that moment coincided with a shift in the public's behavior. Kennedy's youth and vigor appealed to the television audience, who thought he won the debate.
The momentum Kennedy picked up at that first debate proved too much for Nixon, in 1960, anyway. The lesson Nixon learned the hard way - never underestimate the visual impact of health and glamour—was burned in every rising politico's brain.
In recent years, we've seen another shift in media and glamour, as the particular charms of the Internet force candidates to learn how to respond quickly and effectively to a constituent base made up of citizen journalists. Being able to adeptly manage messages is even more difficult now than it was in 1960. But the importance of glamour is still there—just ask will.i.am. Even today, politicians hope to capture the healthy, young, exciting energy that Kennedy so effortlessly projected back in September 1960.
A look at the Nixon/Kennedy debates and the impact they had on the election: