How Sweat Cost Richard Nixon the 1960 Election
Dripping with perspiration, Nixon drew a stark contrast on tv to the debonair JFK
This past week, millions of Americans and the world at large sat on the edge of their collective seats anxiously watching and awaiting the final results of the Presidential election. While policy, personality and the will of the people all traditionally help determine the outcome of each contest, sometimes strange or even trivial things can help sway the tide. This is especially true for Richard Nixon, who may have lost his bid for the Presidency in 1960 because of his excessive sweating.
After serving as Vice President under Dwight Eisenhower for eight years, Nixon was poised to take his place in the Oval Office during the 1960 election. Not only was he a seasoned politician, the Republican was up against Democratic challenger Senator John F. Kennedy, who was young and Catholic, an identity many voters viewed with suspicion and bias at the time.
On September 26, 1960 a Presidential debate was televised for the first time. While Nixon was able to speak well from personal experience, he looked like a complete mess. He had battled an infection in his knee during the previous few weeks and declined to have any makeup prior to going in front of the camera. His haggard appearance combined with the hot lights made him look less than appealing. Not only did his five o’clock shadow come across prominently to viewers, he was unaccustomed to the heat of the camera lamps, which caused the sweat to run down his brow. He kept pace with his debating, but it was hard not to notice him repeatedly mopping his forehead with a handkerchief.
By comparison, Kennedy looked like he had just stepped off the cover of a magazine. He was tanned, healthy and vivacious. He was also well spoken and prepared, making him appear like a much more appealing alternative.
Former Republican Senator Bob Dole, who himself once ran for President, recalled in a 1996 interview with PBS what was running through his head regarding the hour-long debate:
“I was listening to it on the radio coming into Lincoln, Kansas, and I thought Nixon was doing a great job. Then I saw the TV clips the next morning, and he … didn’t look well. Kennedy was young and articulate and … wiped him out.”
Initially, some media outlets gave Nixon the nod when it came to who came out on top of that first debate. However, the primary talking point soon became the former Vice President’s appearance and obvious discomfort with his sweating.
Incredibly, approximately 40% of the 180,000,000 Americans at the time watched the four televised debates between Kennedy and Nixon in 1960. The first contest pre-empted the Andy Griffith Show on CBS, which was the most popular program at the time. This undoubtedly helped wrangle in more viewers who thought they would be sitting down to Andy, Barney and the gang and instead got a historic matchup of political rivals.
Before the days of carefully coordinated appearances and choice of words, campaigning on such an enormous stage like television was in its infancy and the impact of being prepared or not was relatively unknown. That became apparent as Nixon quickly came to be roundly criticized for his performance. The decidedly conservative Union Leader newspaper from Manchester, New Hampshire even wrote of their profound disappointment, “Frankly, we thought Nixon was clobbered.”
Nixon had the misfortune of doing just about everything wrong during the debate when it came to his appearance. This included what he was wearing. Legendary journalist Dan Rather recalled, “I was working at KHOU in Houston, just starting out in my so-called career. I had always been told, ‘Wear a dark suit on television.’ And there was John F. Kennedy, wearing a dark suit. Richard Nixon, on the other hand, was wearing a light gray suit.”
Before the debate, the two had been polling rather evenly. That all changed after the flop sweat debacle, as Kennedy pulled into the lead with a 48%-43% advantage according to pollster Lou Harris.
Kennedy went on to win the election but was tragically assassinated in 1963. His untimely death prevented him from pursuing what would have been a probable second term.
Nixon eventually ascended to the Presidency, winning the election in 1968. He won again in 1972 but it all quickly came crashing down because of the Watergate scandal, earning him the nickname of Tricky Dick and bringing about his resignation in 1974.
No matter the planning and projecting, sometimes the smallest things can move the needle when it comes to determining the electability of a political candidate. Nixon learned the hard way that underestimating the importance of appearance when going up against a dashing opponent can make you sweat and possibly cost you valuable votes.