From The Vault Of Art Shay: The Great Debate

By Art Shay in News on Oct 10, 2012 4:00PM

(Legendary Chicago-based photographer Art Shay has taken photos of kings, queens, celebrities and the common man in a 60-year career. This week, Art shares his personal recollections of the first major televised presidential debate.)

"My pal Billy Corgan, from his tour dressing room in Missoula, Montana, texted me the other day. "This is the time to tell your Chicagoist readers what you told me about covering the JFK-Nixon debate."

So I will.

On the way into the stage door the McClurg Court television studios of Chicago’s WBBM-TV that fateful Sept. 26, 1960, I abandoned my green Mercedes to the first cop who accepted a $20 for parking me—the first Mercedes on my block. (I traded a new Romney Rambler and $4500 cash and got this four door leather clad beauty with 4,554 miles on it and trailing all kinds of neighborhood status.)

On location, ready to capture history for Time magazine, I paused at the side of a limousine, with two or three cameras focused, to let the Nixon myrmidons get in first. I shot Vice President Richard Nixon as he took several uneasy steps, then his knee seemed to collapse!

When someone behind me asked, "What happened, Mr. Vice President?" Nixon muttered, "Gettin' into the fucking limo! Can you believe it?" Nixon snarled in pain: "I hurt my fuckin' knee getting’ into the fuckin' limo." He looked up at Heaven from whence his guidance came (in the form of his boss, Ike Eisenhower) and it was a dirty look. No one dared disable the knee of the next President. Not even God.

I remember carefully harboring my press pass amongst my lenses and unwrapped film. (I'd bought two brand new motorized Nikons that morning as spares!) I was ready for the expected time constraint of two minutes for still pictures. Thus it was wiser to buy two new $300 Nikons than to lose half my time reloading.

In that official allotted time I squeezed off 144 frames! My poorer competitors with fewer cameras didn't have the luxury of two extra "high speed" cameras mounted with a 105mm telephoto, which proved the best lens for the job. While bending over my gear and loading up I heard that familiar golden JFK voice asking me a question (I must recount this to my great grandson Moses Lavin when he turns three in a couple of years): "Where's a feller take a whizz around here?" The Secret Service leaped to answer his question and cut me out of the moment.

I heard one disappointed Obama rooter say of the more recent debate, "Romney beat him fair and square—except like in football they should have a lie detector instead of a replay tape—and Obama would've won four lies to 13!"

If you can't wait until this time every Wednesday to get your Art Shay fix, please check out the photographer's blog, which is updated regularly. Art Shay's book, Chicago's Nelson Algren, is also available at Amazon.