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Nixon's Knee
How a car door in North Carolina helped decide the presidential election of 1960

By Bryan Warner

“For want of a nail the shoe was lost. For want of a shoe the horse was lost. 
For want of a horse the battle was lost. For the failure of battle the kingdom was lost – All for the want of a nail.” - proverb

In the late summer of 1960, Republican presidential nominee Richard Nixon made his way through the North Carolina Piedmont as he pursued his quest to visit all 50 states before Election Day.

While delivering a speech in Greensboro on August 17, Nixon recalled his time as a law student at Duke and expressed his hope to be the first Republican to carry the Tar Heel state in more than 30 years.

“I always remember that whatever I have done in the past, or may do in the future, Duke University is responsible one way or the other,” Nixon told the audience.

Vice presidential candidate Lyndon Johnson and Sen. Everett Dirksen visit Vice President Richard Nixon at Walter Reed Army Medical Center

When climbing back into his automobile after the campaign stop, Nixon scraped his left knee on the car door.

The injury soon became infected, leaving him pale and feverish, his eyes heavy, and sending him to Walter Reed Army Medical Center for two weeks as the first-ever televised presidential debate approached.

The misfortune added to Nixon’s cosmetic woes. A caricaturist’s dream, Nixon’s paunchy cheeks and round-the-clock five o’clock shadow already put him at something of a disadvantage on camera. Adding insult to injury, when arriving for the debate at CBS television in Chicago, Nixon once again hit his tender knee on the car door, turning his face to chalk.

Backstage, he refused to wear makeup for fear of seeming less than macho as he prepared to go on set with his more telegenic rival, who had come rested, tanned and in no need of powder.

The result, beamed into living rooms across the nation, was a stark contrast between the bronzed, calm John Kennedy, against the gaunt, sweaty Nixon, whose dull gray suit seemed to fade into the backdrop during this era of black-and-white television.

Some 70 million Americans tuned in for the debate – a third of the U.S. population – with conventional wisdom scoring a victory for Kennedy, moving the Democrat from a slight deficit to a slim lead in the polls. Although the candidates would meet three more times on television that election, the viewers for those debates were a fraction of the colossal audience that watched the novel first clash.

In one of the closest elections of all time, Kennedy beat Nixon in the popular vote by only 112,000 ballots out of more than 68 million cast – not quite .2 percent. A shift in less than 1 percent of the vote in three states carried by Kennedy – Illinois, Missouri and New Jersey – would have delivered the Electoral College and the White House to Nixon.

Surely, it would be far too reductive to boil down the circuitous complexities of a presidential contest to one poor debate showing caused in part by a scraped knee and a prideful refusal to wear makeup. Kennedy proved custom-made for the new age of televised presidential campaigns, teamed with the back-room political genius that was Lyndon Johnson. And President Eisenhower’s biting joke about Vice President Nixon’s insignificant role in his administration torpedoed the Republican’s argument for his governing experience.

Yet, if Nixon had not injured himself, he would not have lost precious time on the campaign trail while convalescing in a hospital bed. He may have been more prepared and at ease for the televised debate. And a superior performance that evening among tens of millions of voters may have changed just enough ballots to sway destiny.

We know that Nixon would return in 1968, but that was eight long years into one of the most turbulent decades in American history. If Nixon had won in 1960, what would that have meant for the Cuban Missile Crisis and for escalation in Vietnam? For the Space Race and march to the moon? For the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act?

In the razor-thin election of 1960, the fate of a nation may have been determined in some measure on an August day in North Carolina when a car door met Nixon’s knee.

Bryan Warner is editor of The Voter Update Magazine.