The first televised presidential debate was not, as you might think, in 1960 between Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy. It was actually in 1956, between Maine Sen. Margaret Chase Smith and former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt.
CBS wanted two women to debate the merits of President Dwight Eisenhower, running for re-election, and Adlai Stevenson, his Democratic challenger. Both women were party stalwarts and seasoned politicians; both were the logical choice for the role.
Sen. Smith, however, was reluctant, believing Mrs. Roosevelt the better debater. But she finally agreed and set to work preparing for the debate. She first focused on her appearance, setting a precedent John F. Kennedy would follow four years later with great success.
In her autobiography, Declaration of Conscience, Sen. Smith describes her thinking about her outfit in much the same way Eisenhower must have plotted the invasion of Normandy.
“What would I wear?” she wrote. “How would my hair be styled? What would Mrs. Roosevelt wear—what would her hair style be?”
She decided to counter Mrs. Roosevelt’s height advantage by emphasizing slimness – a dark outfit with full or three-quarter sleeve. That would contrast nicely on black-and-white television with what Mrs. Roosevelt would probably wear – tweeds. A simple dark suit, she wrote, ‘accentuated the importance of hair styling. I remembered that she usually had a full-bodied hair style, rather loosely rolled and pinned back. “
Then there was the hat question. “Nov. 4 meant cool weather. If so, such a hair style plus a hat would tend to give her a top-heavy appearance.” Sen. Smith decided to wear no hat, a short strand of pearls and her trademark red rose. “This would not only effect a contrast of trimness but of simplicity,” she wrote. Sen. Smith tactfully avoided the word ‘dowdy to describe Mrs. Roosevelt, who arrived wearing all Sen. Smith could hope for: a loose-fitting beige shantung suit, a hat and an Adlai Stevenson button.
Four years later, Sen. John F. Kennedy’s careful attention to his appearance — dark suit, suntan and broad smile – gave him the edge in his debate with Vice President Richard Nixon’s light suit and hastily applied pancake makeup.
Sen. Smith had another trick up her three-quarter sleeve. She anticipated Mrs. Roosevelt would be confident, detached and not fully prepared. She would speak with conviction and authority. To counter that advantage, Sen. Smith decided to be brief and polite – and to save her best argument for last, when Mrs. Roosevelt couldn’t respond.
“Mrs. Roosevelt was extremely articulate and fluent,” she wrote. “I stuck to brief answers. It was evident that Mrs. Roosevelt was caught by surprise as I refrained from tangling with her. The more I spoke softly and smiled faintly, and the less I said in reply, the more Mrs. Roosevelt seemed to be put off balance. For the whole debate, on points of argument, Eleanor Roosevelt was winning hands down. Only her apparent uneasiness at our strategy of brevity and restraint caused her to talk even more than she intended. This began to come through to the viewers, I was told, to the point of diluting the effectiveness of her excellent arguments and blunting the edge she deserved.”
Mrs. Roosevelt had questioned President Eisenhower’s leadership ability. Sen. Smith, in her closing remarks, pointed out her late husband and Winston Churchill had chosen Eisenhower to be commander-in-chief of allied forces in Europe and to lead the country to victory in World War II. “They chose him on a nonpolitical basis of principle,” she concluded. “They now attack him just because he is not a partisan Democrat.”
In the end, it wasn’t clear who won the debate. It was clear who was happier with her performance. Mrs. Roosevelt refused to shake Sen. Smith’s hand afterward, and said to her companion as she walked away, “Did you hear what she said!”