"Nixon didn't want cake make-up was because when Humphrey had debated Kennedy, Humphrey had appeared with too much make-up on."
In February of 2007, Herb Klein, the Union-Tribune's retired editor-in-chief and longtime aide to Richard Nixon, sat down in San Diego for one last oral history for the Nixon presidential library.
Klein would die at age 91 on July 2, 2009, but during his final interview, Professor David Greenberg of Rutgers University and Nixon presidential library director Timothy Naftali elicited a series of details regarding Klein's time as reporter and editor for the Copley Press and his simultaneous years of service for Nixon.
Nixon campaign along Broadway, downtown San Diego
Klein was part of a Cold War generation of U-T employees known by the company as "Copleymen" for their dedication to owner Jim Copley, famous for bragging that the influence of his San Diego newspapers had thrown California to Richard Nixon in 1960's presidential race against John F. Kennedy.
In a front-page "public apology" last month, U-T editor Jeff Light blasted his dead predecessors, noting that the Copley Press (which the editor did not explicitly name) had "for decades carried political functionaries on its payroll and a partisan worldview on its news pages."
"It is not easy to accept responsibility," continued Light. "But I think the people of San Diego should know that at the Union-Tribune, we feel the weight of the painful chapters in our company's story. We are sorry for the times the company has let down our community. It motivates us to do better."
Though Klein is not around for rebuttal, he left behind thousands of pages in the Nixon library and at the University of Southern California, his alma mater, documenting an earlier era of American political life.
Herb Klein on plane with Nixon
The collections show a more nuanced Klein and how he accommodated Copley and the future president during the years of confrontation with the Soviet Union. As the 2020 campaign tumbles toward an uncertain finish, his memories of the Nixon-Kennedy debates, the first to be televised, shed perspective on how American politics functioned sixty years ago.
"He'd given me strict instructions to avoid the debates," Klein remembered of Nixon's orders after Kennedy became the Democratic standard-bearer in the summer of 1960.
"So after we got the nomination in Chicago, he had a press conference and said he announced that he was going to debate, and the most surprised person in the room was me."
Klein speculated that Nixon had changed his mind because "he felt he could debate anyone, and if he avoided the debates, he would be hounded by it by the hostile press."
"It's one of the interesting things that's in today's politics versus then," he said, describing the take-no-prisoners attitude of today's campaigns versus the negotiations that led to the four 1960 debates. "The Kennedy people and ourselves were all good friends, and we would fight and argue and then have drinks together."
According to Klein, Nixon's fate was almost immediately sealed when the campaign miscalculated that the fourth debate would be most-watched and prepared accordingly.
"Our strength was the debate that would be on international relations, so we agreed to have the first one on domestic policy. And the second and third would be on general questions, and the fourth would be on international relations.
"And that was a mistake, because a big audience was there to see, out of curiosity, what was a debate like. So the biggest audience was for the first time, and then Nixon's weakness in that first debate besides the things that have been said about make-up and that was that he was trying to be too polite again. He was afraid of the ‘Tricky Dick’ thing."
Nixon's "planning was thrown off because of the fact that he had been ill. And so while he was in the hospital, he had to learn how to say a lot of medical terms and describe -- what his illness was -- thrombophlebitis.
"Anyway, he was sort of scratching to get out and get on the campaign, and so that instead of taking the whole day off on the day of the debates, we flew in to Chicago, and we spoke to the Carpenters Union, which eventually supported him.
But while Kennedy would "have his staff fire questions at him" by way of preparation, said Klein, "Nixon's would be to isolate himself and study the book and prepare the issues."
Nixon was reluctant to confront Kennedy in front of a live audience. "He wanted me to be sure was that there was no big audience in the studio, because he felt he did better isolated with Kennedy and not having people applauding or tempted to be applauding.
"So we had the press in one area of the studios in Chicago, and the debate actually took place in isolation with seven pool reporters, and so that was the way we went into the thing.
"And so he only really spent the afternoon really concentrating deeply on it. And I think he obviously underestimated it. But he could answer any question. The bigger problem was he was trying to be too polite."
Nixon was famously obsessed with not wearing make-up.
"The reason that he didn't want cake make-up was because when Humphrey had debated Kennedy in Wisconsin, Humphrey had appeared with too much make-up on, and Nixon felt that made him look like a sissy. And so Nixon's macho was part of why he didn't want to cover his beard much."
In an era without instant polling and focus groups, the immediate outcome of the first debate on September 26, 1960, was uncertain.
"Nixon went over to his hotel, and he was dead tired and went right to bed. And I talked to him for a few minutes, and Rose Mary Woods did, and I and my staff went back to do our first big job of spinning.
"The only way we finally found out who had won was by crowds the next day. Kennedy had a big increase in crowds, and we had a decrease. And of course you know the story about radio and TV, that Nixon won on radio and Kennedy on TV."
"We put our big emphasis on the fourth debate, and Nixon in the polls showed that Nixon won the fourth debate by about 4 percent, I think. It was a sizable margin, which helped us in our final swing to gain votes in the last 48 or 72 hours. So we probably made the biggest gain, I believe, in the final 72 hours that any candidate has in that period of time."