On Sept. 26, 2016, America witnessed the latest in its history of televised debates as Republican Donald Trump and Democrat Hilary Clinton exchanged barbs in this highly charged election year.
But in all the hoopla, apparently by sheer coincidence, no one seems to have noticed that exactly 56 years to the day the first televised presidential debate was held in 1960.
This coincidence brings up some interesting questions.
What were the world and the Lehigh Valley like back then? What were the burning issues that divided the country and world? How did the candidates, Sen. John F. Kennedy, Democrat, and Vice President Richard M. Nixon, Republican, approach them? And in particular how did the Lehigh Valley of the day view the novel idea of debates themselves?
It is almost a cliché to say the world, the country, and the Lehigh Valley were very different places then than they are today, but it happens to be true. Ever since 1948, the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union had been in place.
Headlines in the newspapers that week noted a tumultuous season at the United Nations over whether the newly independent Congo State in Africa would lean to the Americans or the Russians. That year Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev said, “We will bury you.”
And all around the world from Red China’s continued bombardment of the Nationalist Chinese on two islands off Taiwan, an issue that would dominate that year’s last presidential debate, to a place called Vietnam that few Americans could find on a map, there were flash points. “COLD WAR AT ITS COLDEST,” blared a headline in one local newspaper.
Domestically, America was on the surface peaceful and prosperous. In the Lehigh Valley, Allentown was beginning plans for the celebration of its 200th birthday in 1962. An advertising booklet put out by the Chamber of Commerce was brimful of ads placed by local businesses large and small.
Bethlehem Steel, Mack Truck, Hess’s and retail stores up and down Hamilton Street were clearly doing well. And following a 1959 strike at Bethlehem Steel, workers made significant gains.
Household appliances were filling the stores with one Hamilton Street merchant offering refrigerators for $279 with easy payments arranged. Black and white television sets glowed into the night as “The Untouchables” gunned down 1920s gangsters and Marshall Dillion made Dodge City a safer place on “Gunsmoke.”
Color TV sets were around, but many “pioneers” who purchased them found it was almost impossible to get the flesh tone anything but green.
But there were undercurrents of change. The still heavily segregated South was starting to see civil rights protests that were being met with opposition, both vocal and violent. A week before the first debate at the Southern Governor’s Leadership Conference, several Deep South governors were stating their states were far from a sure thing for Kennedy because of his support of Martin Luther King.
Despite the booming Bethlehem Steel Corporation, across the country's small mini-mills were in operation that could do the job cheaper. And by 1960, the European and Asian steel industries that had been destroyed in World War II were coming back with more modern steel making facilities.
The reaction of Arthur Homer, CEO of Bethlehem Steel, was simple. “I don’t believe it,” he told a business writer.
The Lehigh Valley in 1960 was largely Republican. In general, everyone, “liked Ike.”
Dwight D. Eisenhower was not only a genuine war hero but he had a home in Gettysburg and came from Pennsylvania German roots. He had carried it easily against Adlai Stevenson. And Richard Nixon with his anti-Communist stance was also popular.
The idea of presidential debates was so new that the reaction to them in the Lehigh Valley was as an untried novelty.
“Although tonight’s 'Great Debate' may produce a few forensic fireworks,” stated the Morning Call’s editorial, “television viewers who expect a free-swinging verbal battle between Vice President Nixon and Sen. Kennedy may be disappointed. Ground rules have been negotiated with all the care of a nuclear weapons treaty to avoid the risk of a serious misstep.”
There were to be four debates, none of them for vice presidential candidates. The first 16 minutes of the 60-minute debate would be given over to opening statements by the candidates with closing summaries of three to four minutes each.
There would be five reporters asking questions in the remaining 38 minutes. The local press called it little more than a “glorified news conference.”
Eisenhower told Nixon he was crazy for allowing Kennedy that much exposure. But as a college debating champ, the vice president thought he had the edge. Both candidates had been warned against overexposure.
“Too many appearances on highly rated ‘entertainment shows’ well could diminish the effect of the debates,” noted the Call. But, “Except to decline invitations to give civic lessons to the small fry on ‘Captain Kangaroo’ neither has heeded the warning.”
Locally that night the debate appeared on stations 2, 3, 4, 6, and 10. On channel 3 it was between the detective thriller “Peter Gunn” and “Jackpot Bowling.” Across the nation over 68 million viewers tuned in, almost as many as voted in the election.
Kennedy talked about “getting the country moving again,” while Nixon talked about how fine things were under Republicans. Both, however, made more of an impression by their appearance.
Historians still argue whether Nixon’s so called “five o’clock shadow” beard stubble did him in. But for whatever reasons he did look tired and wan compared to the sun tanned Kennedy. Those who heard the debate on the radio thought Nixon won.