Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

When candidates said 'no' to debates

By Bob Greene, CNN Contributor
October 1, 2012 -- Updated 1143 GMT (1943 HKT)
John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon exchange smiles beneath glaring lights before their first TV debate in 1960.
John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon exchange smiles beneath glaring lights before their first TV debate in 1960.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Bob Greene: After Nixon vs. Kennedy in 1960, there were no presidential debates until 1976
  • He says Nixon's sweaty showing in '60 helped put candidates off TV debates
  • In subsequent campaigns, neither LBJ nor Nixon debated their rivals
  • Greene: Now debates are nearly mandatory, much as candidates might like to avoid them

Editor's note: CNN contributor Bob Greene is a bestselling author whose 25 books include "Late Edition: A Love Story"; "Duty: A Father, His Son, and the Man Who Won the War"; and "Once Upon a Town: The Miracle of the North Platte Canteen."

(CNN) -- Who can ever forget the electrifying series of presidential debates in which Lyndon B. Johnson, outlining his Great Society program, went head-to-head in 1964 with Republican nominee Barry Goldwater, who boldly stood his ground on rock-solid, small-government ideals?

Or the 1968 debates that America couldn't take its eyes off: Richard Nixon, trying once again to make it to the White House, toe to toe with Vice President Hubert Humphrey in what was shaping up to be a close election with starkly different platforms.

The 1972 presidential debates, of course -- Nixon, who was by then the incumbent, trading verbal body slams with his Democratic challenger, George McGovern, against the backdrop of the Vietnam war -- were like a professional wrestling grudge match, with each excited camp of viewers at home pulling for its man to triumph.

What?

You say you don't remember those debates?

You're right.

They didn't happen.

Best moments from presidential debates
McCain on managing debate expectations
Who has the advantage in the debates?
Clinton: Debates are crucial for Romney

It's an intriguing footnote to modern political history. Televised presidential debates -- the first one of this year's general election will be held in Denver, Colorado on Wednesday -- have become so much a part of the fabric of autumn campaigns that many people assume that the famed John F. Kennedy-Richard Nixon debates of 1960 began an uninterrupted string.

But in fact, after the four Kennedy-Nixon debates, it would be 16 years before there was another debate between a Republican and Democratic candidate.

Brazile: Why debates don't always make a difference

Kennedy-Nixon, for a long stretch, was the anomaly -- the exception to the rule.

Before their debates, no presidential candidates in a general election had debated on radio or television. There had been intraparty, primary-season debates but never one after the end of the summer conventions.

It is part of political lore that, because of Nixon's pale, perspiring look in the first of those 1960 debates, he suffered in comparison with the tan, confident Kennedy, and the TV cameras did him in. Key to the shorthand narrative is that Nixon, not fully understanding the relatively new medium of television, declined to wear makeup.

But there's more to the story than that. Largely forgotten is that Nixon had been hospitalized for two weeks in August, when he had hoped to be out campaigning. He had banged his knee getting out of a car at an event in North Carolina and had developed a serious infection. So, while Kennedy was introducing himself to voters around the country, Nixon was in a hospital bed -- and the newsreel footage of him, in his pajamas, being visited by President Dwight D. Eisenhower did not play well against film of the healthy-looking, vibrant Kennedy working election-season crowds.

By the time Nixon left the hospital, he was in a weakened state. He had the flu and a fever when he arrived in Chicago for that first debate, and had lost considerable weight. He allowed his assistants to apply a drugstore-aisle product called Lazy-Shave to tone down his 5 o'clock shadow, but his ashen appearance, and the perspiration, were as much a consequence of his health problems as anything else.

He lost, and in 1964, with Goldwater as the Republican candidate, President Johnson, who had taken office after the assassination of Kennedy, decided that there was no reason for him to debate. Johnson was well ahead in the polls; he was said to feel that a debate could not help him much but could certainly hurt him, if he did not do well. He sent word that he was not open to participating.

Rosen: How Obama can win debate

There was another factor arguing against presidential debates in the 16 years after Kennedy-Nixon: the Federal Communications Commission's equal-time provision, which mandated the inclusion of all candidates -- fringe ones as well as the nominees of the major parties. (It had been suspended for a year in 1960, when Kennedy and Nixon debated).

So the major candidates could use that as an out, if they preferred not to debate. In 1968 Humphrey wanted to debate Nixon, but Nixon -- still stung by 1960 -- said no.

And in 1972, when Nixon was the incumbent and far ahead in the polls, he barely deigned to say McGovern's name during the fall campaign, much less debate him.

By 1976 a way around the equal-time rule was found: If debates were sponsored not by television networks but by outside groups setting their own criteria, they could be considered news events and thus not required to include minor-party candidates.

That year, President Gerald Ford, having entered office after Nixon resigned, agreed to debate Jimmy Carter. He may have wished he hadn't. It was in one of the debates that Ford said, "There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe," a misstep that changed the course of the election.

Today debates between the candidates -- even when one of them is the incumbent -- are all but mandatory. A candidate would be seen as chicken for not agreeing to debate. (If you thought the Clint Eastwood empty chair at the Republican National Convention this summer caused conversation, just think what a candidate who agreed to debate would have to say about the empty chair of an opponent who declined).

Even post-1976, some candidates tested the waters of skipping debates. In 1980, President Carter chose not to participate in the first one because independent candidate John Anderson was included. Carter's opponent, Ronald Reagan, did show up at that debate -- and even though Carter appeared at the one subsequent debate that fall, Reagan went on to win the election.

Four years ago, Republican candidate John McCain said that he wanted to postpone the first debate in Oxford, Mississippi; he proposed that he and his opponent, fellow U.S. Senator Barack Obama, instead go to Washington to help with the financial crisis. Obama said he would be in Mississippi regardless of whether McCain was ("It's going to be part of the president's job to be able to deal with more than one thing at once"). McCain relented and came to the debate, but his initial hesitation seemed to throw his campaign off balance.

It's unlikely that there will ever be another autumn in which the candidates do not debate, but you never know.

It's a pretty safe bet, though, that come nightfall Wednesday in Colorado, Obama and Mitt Romney will be at their appointed places on the stage. It's how we do things now.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Bob Greene.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
September 20, 2014 -- Updated 1624 GMT (0024 HKT)
John Sutter boarded a leaky oyster boat in Connecticut with a captain who can't swim as he set off to get world leaders to act on climate change
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 2322 GMT (0722 HKT)
Is ballet dying? CNN spoke with Isabella Boylston, a principal dancer at the American Ballet Theatre, about the future of the art form.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 2147 GMT (0547 HKT)
Sally Kohn says it's time we take climate change as seriously as we do warfare in the Middle East
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1302 GMT (2102 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah says an Oklahoma state representative's hateful remarks were rightfully condemned by religious leaders..
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1922 GMT (0322 HKT)
No matter how much planning has gone into U.S. military plans to counter the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the Arab public isn't convinced that anything will change, says Geneive Abdo
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1544 GMT (2344 HKT)
President Obama's strategy for destroying ISIS seems to depend on a volley of air strikes. That won't be enough, says Haider Mullick.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1303 GMT (2103 HKT)
Paul Begala says Hillary Clinton has plenty of good reasons not to jump into the 2016 race now
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1501 GMT (2301 HKT)
Scotland decided to trust its 16-year-olds to vote in the biggest question in its history. Americans, in contrast, don't even trust theirs to help pick the county sheriff. Who's right?
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 0157 GMT (0957 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says spanking is an acceptable form of disciplining a child, as long as you follow the rules.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1547 GMT (2347 HKT)
Frida Ghitis says the foiled Australian plot shows ISIS is working diligently to taunt the U.S. and its allies.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1958 GMT (0358 HKT)
Young U.S. voters by and large just do not see the midterm elections offering legitimate choices because, in their eyes, Congress has proven to be largely ineffectual, and worse uncaring, argues John Della Volpe
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 0158 GMT (0958 HKT)
Steven Holmes says spanking, a practice that is ingrained in our culture, accomplishes nothing positive and causes harm.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1831 GMT (0231 HKT)
Sally Kohn says America tried "Cowboy Adventurism" as a foreign policy strategy; it failed. So why try it again?
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1427 GMT (2227 HKT)
Van Jones says the video of John Crawford III, who was shot by a police officer in Walmart, should be released.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1448 GMT (2248 HKT)
NASA will need to embrace new entrants and promote a lot more competition in future, argues Newt Gingrich.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 2315 GMT (0715 HKT)
If U.S. wants to see real change in Iraq and Syria, it will have to empower moderate forces, says Fouad Siniora.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 0034 GMT (0834 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says there are basic rules to follow when interacting with law enforcement: respect their authority.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1305 GMT (2105 HKT)
LZ Granderson says Congress has rebuked the NFL on domestic violence issue, but why not a federal judge?
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1149 GMT (1949 HKT)
Mel Robbins says the only person you can legally hit in the United States is a child. That's wrong.
September 15, 2014 -- Updated 1723 GMT (0123 HKT)
Eric Liu says seeing many friends fight so hard for same-sex marriage rights made him appreciate marriage.
ADVERTISEMENT