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Q & A

JOHN CHANCELLOR: 1960, All Over Again

September 09, 1990|SUSAN KING

John Chancellor, NBC's senior political analyst, was 33 when he covered the 1960 presidential campaigns of John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon for NBC.

Thirty years later, he's hosting and narrating the Arts & Entertainment Network's "Campaign U60," a series of special programs this month that will follow the crucial events of the Kennedy-Nixon election.

The series kicks off with "The 1960 Democratic National Convention," airing Wednesday at 6 and 10 p.m. "The 1960 Republican Convention" airs Sept. 19 at 6 and 10 p.m. Both are excerpts of the convention shown with NBC News footage.

"As It Happened: The Great Debate 1960," is a retelecast, on the 30th anniversary of the first Kennedy-Nixon debate. The debate, which helped clinch the presidency for the telegenic Kennedy, airs Sept. 26 at 5 and 9 p.m. The three other Kennedy/Nixon debates air Sept. 27 at 6 p.m.

Chancellor also hosts "Election Night 1960," a two-hour compilation of NBC's 1960 Election Night coverage, airing Sept. 28 at 6 and 10 p.m.

The veteran newscaster talked about Kennedy, Nixon and how television coverage changed the 1960 campaign with Susan King.

You've seen the "Campign U60S programs. In retrospect, what did you find most surprising about them?

I just sit there amazed looking at how we were improvising everything in those days. It was wonderful stuff. In 1960, people were still doing things in TV for the first time. It was wonderful for me to look back and see how the elements of what we do today is present there in 1960. We had a computer, which was making sort of primitive projections of various states, and we had (anchormen) Huntley and Brinkley and cameras and remotes.

In 1950, when I went to work for NBC, I think it was 9% of American homes had televisions, and they were very expensive sets. I think it was 92% of American homes had televisions by 1960. That meant for the first time we had the whole country watching (election coverage).

When Eisenhower ran in 1952 and was re-elected in 1956, you had things like torchlight parades and big rallys in stadiums. It was personal campaigning. People had to be able to see you, but by 1960 that had begun to change because of television. In 1960 it was a mixture of eye contact on the personal level and a certain amount of television coverage.

You were a panelist on the foreign affairs debate between Kennedy and Nixon. What are your memories of the debates? Did Kennedy really win those debates? I thought Kennedy killed him (in the first debate) because we were watching on TV. All the surveys showed that Nixon had won on the radio and all the surveys of the TV audience said that Kennedy had won.

This is now sort of accepted wisdom-Nixon on television was really debating Kennedy and Kennedy, having been very carefully coached and being a natural TV performer, didn't pay any attention to Nixon.

Kennedy made his points by looking straight into the camera and talking in a persuasive way. Nixon, a trained debater, was trying to counter the points Kennedy made. He kept looking at Kennedy and trying to debate Kennedy. Kennedy was too smart to do that.

By the time you were a panelist, had Nixon become more self-confident in front of the cameras?

I think I was on the third debate. By then the tension surrounding the first debate had eased a lot. All I do remember is that Kennedy seemed in all of the debates to be more comfortable and poised. TV is a lie detector, and I know this because I spent my life in it. If you are faking it, or are nervous or uncomfortable, it's going to show. I think Kennedy was happy with himself and his own personality and that made a huge difference.

How did you perceive the candidates?

I respected them both. I have to say that the Nixon campaign people were quite talented and professional. It was an old-fashioned political organization. But there was something-the candidate was difficult to talk to. You never felt the candidate relaxed in your presence. I guess for a political reporter, and I guess for any reporter, we are all aware of slights. When people are uncomfortable in your presence, you pick it up. Nixon was never comfortable in your presence.

Then you would go over to the Kennedy campaign, which was staffed, as the Nixon campaign, with seasoned, experienced professionals, nice folks. Then you would get through that group to the candidate, and Kennedy was relaxed and as charming as he could possibly be. Being a human being, you liked covering Kennedy. You liked covering Nixon, until you got to the candidate.

Were you surprised on Election Night 30 years ago that Kennedy won?

I think it was about 2 in the morning Eastern time when we began to think Kennedy might pull it out, and then the computer, which was very cumbersome in those days, began to say "Kennedy wins, Kennedy wins."

I found out later on it was after midnight Eastern time when the Nixon people began saying, "It looks pretty bad," and then the Kennedy people began to say, "Not so bad." It wasn't the closest election, but it was decided by 2 votes per precinct all across the United States.

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