#fangate, Charlie Crist, and the 1960 Kennedy-Nixon Debate

#fangate, Charlie Crist, and the 1960 Kennedy-Nixon Debate

Much has been made over #fangate, the defining moment of the last debate between Charlie Crist and Rick Scott in the 2014 Florida governor’s race. Governor Scott refused to take the stage for six minutes over a small fan Crist had under his podium. The fan seemed like a minor personal quirk. Yet Crist’s penchant for fans may speak to a better understanding of television and election history than most people realize.

In the first televised debate of the 1960 Presidental election, Richard Nixon appeared ashen faced, sweaty, and rumpled next to an apparently cool, calm, and tanned John F. Kennedy. The debate was not only the first presidental debate in history, it was also the first to be shown on the medium of television and the unforgiving lens of the camera. Nixon, tired after campaigning in the morning, refused makeup–as did Kennedy. Unshaven, his shirt seemingly ill-fitting, sweating under the lights, Nixon came off looking ill. The moderator of the debate stated he thought Nixon looked depressed while a pro-Kennedy observer said Nixon had the appearance of an awkward cadaver. Opposite him was Kennedy, looking fit and healthy, Stories have since emerged of people calling Nixon’s camp after the election, asking if he was sick. While its hard to judge the immediate impact in 1960, the idea that Nixon lost the debate (and the election) due to his sickly appearance on television has become part of American electoral lore.

The scene has been parodied on the Simpsons, as a medicated Mayor Quimby falls apart under the studio lighting when debating Sideshow Bob in the episode . “Sideshow Bob Roberts.” Nixon himself made light of the debate by posing for a 1968 Esquire cover depicting makeup being applied to his face with the line, “Nixon’s last chance. (This time he’d better look right!)

Charlie Crist may have taken the lessons of 1960 to heart. As Historian Edmund Kallina noted, on television appearances count for a lot. Staying cool, calm, and collected on screen projects confidence, something that is just as important as anything said–and in today’s media age, perhaps even more so. A little fan goes a long way.

Kennedy/Nixon Debate

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