White House tapes reveal JFK debate haunted Nixon

(CBS News) After the first televised presidential debates were held in 1960, they didn't have another for 16 years. That was no accident, according to White House tapes that have just come to light. The tapes show then-President Richard Nixon talking about debates with his top advisers.

In the first debate ever, between John F. Kennedy and Nixon back in 1960, Nixon, despite his years in the Senate and his time as vice president, came off more poorly on TV than the less-experienced Kennedy - something that new tapes show lingered with Nixon for years to come. It was a debate that he could never live down.

In that debate, Kennedy asked at one point, "Which party do we want to lead the United States?"

The moderator cut in, "Mr. Nixon would you like to comment on that statement?"

Nixon replied, "I have no comment."

Going head-to-head with then-Sen. John F. Kennedy in 1960, then-Vice President Nixon looked sweaty and uncomfortable compared to a tan, relaxed Kennedy.

In recently uncovered audio recordings, Nixon lamented that performance in a candid conversation with his White House Chief of Staff Bob Haldeman.

On Sept. 14, 1971, Nixon said, "Remember, even on the first debate. We made the mistake of not -- for that one. Well, or -- we got prepared. Worked like hell."

Haldeman said, "But you didn't have time -- "

Nixon said, "Running the goddamn schedule so hard, we didn't learn from the other -- we're never gonna make that mistake again."

Nixon never did make that mistake again -- not when he ran in 1968.

Historian and Nixon scholar Ken Hughes said, "Nixon didn't want to debate in '68 because he then had the experience of 1960 behind him."

And not in 1972 when he was up for re-election, and his opponent, Sen. George McGovern, challenged him to a debate.

Hughes, of the University of Virginia's Miller Center, found the Nixon tapes. In the never-before-heard recording, Nixon cites national security concerns as a reason for not debating. He said on July 22, 1972, "It wouldn't serve the interests of the country particularly at this time when very important negotiations are taking place involving matters of very great importance to the nation and which cannot be discussed -- cannot and should not be discussed in a debate forum."

At the time, the Vietnam War was a major issue.

And in that same conversation with Press Secretary Ron Ziegler, the president gives instructions for a statement from his campaign, denying McGovern's debate request.

He can be heard saying, "What should he say? That the president -- that, uh, no incumbent president should debate his opponent."

Ziegler said, "That's right."

"The differences between these two are so great that they don't need a debate to bring them out," Nixon said.

Ziegler said, "They don't, right."

Nixon asked, "How's that sound to you?"

Ziegler replied, "Yeah, good."

But Nixon can't resist saying that if there were a debate, he'd win.

Hughes said, "Nixon, as far as he was concerned was a champion debater and he would completely destroy George McGovern if given the chance."

In that exchange with Ziegler, Nixon said, "Of course, having a debate wouldn't concern me a bit, because -- "

Ziegler said, "No, you'd clean him up, but the only thing of it is -- "

Nixon said, "This guy doesn't have any flair at all."

"No, you'd kill him," Ziegler said. "But the only problem is then, I mean, he automatically elevated."

"It'd give him a lot of free time," Nixon said.

"Gives him prestige," Ziegler said.

Nixon said, "Well, it isn't just the prestige. I don't want to give him all that --"

Ziegler: "TV time."

Nixon: "I just don't want to give him all that coverage."

Ziegler: "Right."

Nixon: "You know, on prime time."

Ziegler: "Right."

Nixon: "Let him get his own prime time."

Ziegler: "Sure"

And there were no more debates until after Nixon had resigned and Gerald Ford took over. Ford -- who was trailing Jimmy Carter and needed a boost -- agreed to a debate in 1976, 16 years after the groundbreaking first debate in 1960. And these days, the debates have become an institution which no candidate, sitting president or not, is likely to be able to avoid.

Watch Bill Plante's full report in the video above.

  • Bill Plante

    Bill Plante is a CBS News Senior White House Correspondent