Matthews: Let me finish tonight with the four Great Debates…

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Let me finish tonight with this. 

Jack Kennedy was deadly serious about his four Great Debates with Richard Nixon. A week before the first, he arranged a secret meeting with CBS’s Don Hewitt, who he knew would be directing the broadcast. Kennedy wanted a heads-up on the setup at the network’s WBBM studio in Chicago. 

“Where do I stand?” he asked Hewitt, trying to get straight on his positioning the big night, the feel of the whole thing.  

When Kennedy and Nixon arrived at the Chicago studio the night of the debate, the Democrat grabbed another edge. He knew that his rival had just many days in the hospital nursing an infected leg wound. Now he could see how awful Nixon looked. This triggered the historic battle of the makeup.

Kennedy had just been campaigning in California and, as always, had worked on his tan. When Hewitt asked if he wanted makeup, he turned it down peremptorily. Nixon, always trying to match the guy he’d come to Congress with just after World War II, also declined.  

Bill Wilson, who was serving as Jack Kennedy’s media adviser described what came next:

“Ted Rogers, who was Nixon’s guy, said, ‘When’s your guy to get makeup on?’ and I said, ‘Well, after your guy’s going to get it.’ Rogers was wary. If the other guy didn’t ask for it, his guy wasn’t going to. ‘Nixon’s not going to get his makeup,’ he said, ‘until John Kennedy does.’ And I said, ‘Well, it looks like it’s a Mexican standoff.” 

That’s how it happened. When he got Kennedy alone in his greenroom, Wilson put makeup on him. All Nixon’s guy did was run down Michigan Avenue to a drugstore and get a product called Lazy Shave, otherwise known as “beard stick.”  

Hewitt saw the problem the second he set eyes on the two candidates. He called Frank Stanton, the head of CBS News, into the control room to see the stark difference in the two candidates’ appearance. Stanton then called Ted Rogers, who said he was satisfied with the way Nixon looked.  

But that’s not the way the rest of the country saw it that night, especially after Nixon began sweating through that “beard stick.” 

A week and a half later, the evening of the second Great Debate had arrived. This time the venue was the NBC studios in Washington, where we produce Hardball.

Bill Wilson arrived with the Kennedy brothers to discover something was up. Someone had set the temperature in the studio practically to freezing. It felt like a meat locker.  

“What the hell is this?” Jack wanted to know. Bobby darted to the control room. Wilson himself remembers racing down to the basement, looking for the air-conditioning unit:

“There was a guy standing there that Ted Rogers had put there, and he said don’t let anybody change this. I said, ‘Get out of my way or I’m going to call the police.’ He immediately left and I changed the air-conditioning back.   

Wilson understood the game and how it was being played. The candidates had their jobs to do; so did the handlers. “Ted wanted to keep his job because of the screw-up in the first debate.” 

This is what goes on in politics!

John F. Kennedy and Hardball Let Me Finish

Matthews: Let me finish tonight with the four Great Debates…

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