The First Debate over Presidential Debates: The History-Making Kennedy-Nixon Debates in 1960 Were Eight Years in the Making. I Know; I Was There
If this year's debate over presidential debates seems rough, try arranging the first televised presidential debates in American history. It took eight years!
In the early 1950s, as president of CBS, I suggested to my colleagues at the network that it would be wonderful if we could have presidential debates. The problem was Section 315 of the Communications Act of 1934, which required you to give equal time to all the candidates. There were numerous bona fide candidates in the '52 campaign, so it was impossible to contemplate debates within the framework of the rules.
If Eisenhower and Stevenson had agreed to debate in '52, I would have pushed Congress to change the rules. But Eisenhower wasn't interested. In 1955 I wrote a guest column in the New York Herald-Tribune, saying that if Congress amended Section 315, CBS would provide free air time for the major candidates to debate.
By 1960 I was ready to try again. First I wanted to find out whether the potential candidates would actually debate. It was early in the year, and I went to see Nixon in the Capitol; he was vice president. His aide said, "You don't have to see him. He was a champion debater at Whittier College. He'll be terrific." So I trotted on down the hall to see my friend Lyndon Johnson, the Democratic Senate leader. Johnson saw me and said, "What the goddam hell do you want?" I said, "Have you got a minute?" At that point Jack Kennedy, who happened to have been sitting with his back to me, turned around and said hello. I said, "If I get these rules changed, will you debate?" Johnson answered, "Why don't you ask Jack?" Jack smiled and said, "I'll do it."
Subsequently, at a Senate subcommittee hearing chaired by John Pastore, I suggested that Congress adopt a resolution to suspend Section 315 for one election. After the hearing, Pastore, along with Warren Magnuson, who chaired the full Senate Commerce Committee, agreed to support the resolution if I got the votes.
I went to work and got the Senate's support. I found no support on the House side. It was May or June, and I wanted to have this legislation passed before the conventions that summer. I knew that Gene Autry, the cowboy-actor who owned a CBS affiliate station, was close to the speaker of the House, Sam Rayburn. I talked to Gene about the resolution and asked if he could help with the speaker. He said, "I'll call you right back." He didn't, but Rayburn's office did. I got the chairman of the House Commerce Committee, Oren Harris, and the two of us went to see Rayburn. …