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First Televised Presidential Debate Held At WBBM Studios Changed Political Game

CHICAGO (CBS) -- The moment isn't lost on us here in Chicago.  The first ever televised presidential debates were held at the WBBM studios 56 years ago today.  CBS 2's Vince Gerasole has a look at that game-changing moment.

In history class we've learned the story of how then-Sen. John Kennedy, with an air of confidence,  connected with millions, while a pale and perspiring Richard Nixon seemed ill at ease.

Many Americans fell in love with John Kennedy that very night," said Bruce DuMont of the Chicago-based Museum of Broadcast Communications.

But the chapter was written here in Chicago.

This framed photo of Secret Service plans of the first-ever televised Presidential Debates at WBBM Studios in 1960 hangs in CBS 2's current studios on Washington St. | Mike Ramsey

"It really is the most important TV show to ever originate from Chicago, because it changed politics and television forever," DuMont said.

The old WBBM studios have been replaced with a high rise in Streeterville, but at The Museum of Broadcast Communications, you can see a camera used that very evening, and the Secret Service blueprint for that night's debate. Both candidates had driven directly into the building, and within an hour, were greeting dignitaries and coming face-to-face as opponents.

Nixon had been Vice President for eight years. A lot of Americans didn't know the junior Senator from Massachusetts.

But the new medium of television put them on equal footing.

Nixon, with a thick 5 o'clock shadow refused makeup, while Kennedy had been campaigning outdoors and was sun-kissed, subtitles magnified by the camera.

"He looked tanned and relaxed. Richard Nixon looked pale and pasty and somewhat haggered and that showed up on television," DuMont added.

Nixon sweat under the heavy lighting, his grey suit blending in to the background, while Kennedy's dark jacket popped. Radio listeners would say Nixon won that night, but viewers reached a different conclusion, changing the political game.

"In a debate it's important what you say but because of that debate 56 years ago, it also was important how you looked saying it," DuMont said.

The lessons, which include how to look compelling in cut-aways, and how to use the camera to speak to the country, by looking at it and not facing your opponent, are still pertinent today. In fact, in this age of instant reaction with Twitter, Facebook and Snapchat, they might be more important than ever.



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