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The first televised debate of the 2020 general election takes place tonight, a quadrennial ritual started 60 years ago by John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon. I almost hesitate to mention that precedent: Unless you're a masochist, don't even watch it. Sen. John F. Kennedy and Vice President Richard Nixon did not care for one another personally, but they were respectful in those debates and refrained entirely from insults, invective, and ad hominem argument.

The 1960 presidential debates concerned the policy issues of the day, which both men knew intimately, and they stuck to the issues. There was no preening or boasting, and very little showmanship.

I don't know what will happen in Cleveland tonight, but after covering the 2016 debates -- and being familiar with both of the 2020 candidates -- it seems a near-certainty that Donald Trump and Joe Biden will not remind anyone of the Jack Kennedy and Dick Nixon who took the stage in 1960. I have higher hopes for Chris Wallace, but we shall see.

America's civic life was different six decades ago and although the 1960 presidential contest wasn't beanbag out on the campaign trail, the idea that our elected officials would value country over party wasn't an idiosyncratic notion advanced by some maverick politician with a war record; rather, it was to be expected.

What's discordant about Donald Trump and Joe Biden is that they are old enough to remember the two presidential candidates of 1960 -- old enough to recall their debates, actually. The lessons didn't stick. Or, rather, the wrong lessons of the Kennedy and Nixon's presidencies is what seems to have imprinted itself. Make no mistake, these were two very flawed men. But they did answer their country's call during wartime, which Biden and Trump did not, and maybe that's part of the difference.

* * *

Seventy-eight years ago today, John F. Kennedy, a junior officer in the United States Navy, wrote a gracious thank-you note to Clare Boothe Luce, one-half America's premier power couple. Joseph P. Kennedy was a prominent Democrat who harbored immense political ambitions for his sons, while Clare Luce was a Republican, as was her husband, Time/Life magazine mogul Henry Luce. But Mrs. Luce was a friend of the Kennedy family, and in the dark autumn of 1942, however, she knew that Jack Kennedy was heading into perilous seas as the U.S. war effort against Japan escalated. She took time from her schedule -- she was running for Congress against an incumbent Democrat -- to send young Kennedy, care of his father, a good luck token that had belonged to her mother.

Kennedy, then 25, was already in the U.S. Navy when America entered World War II. Anticipating the worst, he'd enlisted in September of 1941, and was an ensign in a Washington, D.C., office the day Pearl Harbor was attacked.

While at home on leave a year later, his father gave him Clare Boothe Luce's letter and lucky coin. By then, Kennedy was a lieutenant, junior grade, assigned to PT boat training in Rhode Island. On Sept. 29, 1942, he penned a reply:

"I came home yesterday and Dad gave me your letter with the gold coin," Kennedy wrote. "The coin is now fastened to my identification tag and will be there, I hope, for the duration. I couldn't have been more pleased. Good luck is a commodity in rather large demand these days and I feel you have given me a particularly potent bit of it."

Young Kennedy would need every ounce of positive karma in the Pacific, especially after the small patrol boat he was skippering, PT-109, was cut in half by a Japanese destroyer. Two of the 13 crewman were killed; 11 others were thrown into shark-infested waters. Kennedy, with an injured crewman on his back, swam to the safety of small Pacific islands. The crew was ultimately rescued, and its young lieutenant received a Purple Heart and the Navy and Marine Corps Medal for heroism.

When he recovered from his injuries, Kennedy wrote Clare Boothe Luce again, this time sending a talisman of his own. It was a makeshift letter opener forged from a .51-caliber Japanese bullet and a piece of metal from his boat. "With it goes my sincere thanks for your good-luck piece," he wrote, "which did service above and beyond its routine duties during a rather busy period."

John F. Kennedy had many faults, but lack of bravery was never one of them. After his death, his brother Robert said that courage was the trait he valued above all others. JFK's countrymen didn't need to be told that. He'd written a best-selling book about political courage and had displayed physical courage in the Pacific. He never talked about it much, however. In a late 1950s "Person to Person" interview, famed CBS journalist Edward R. Murrow asked him about PT-109. It was, Kennedy replied blandly, "an interesting experience."

Kennedy's pride in his service -- and gratitude for his rescue -- was tempered by the knowledge that millions of Americans lost family members in that war. It was an insight he'd come by the hard way. Two of his own men had not survived their encounter in the Pacific; his older brother and his sister Kathleen's husband had also died in combat in World War II.

In "A Thousand Days," Kennedy historian and aide Arthur Schlesinger recalled how Kennedy handled his hero status when asked about it in his postwar political campaigns: "It was involuntary," he would say. "They sank my boat."

Carl M. Cannon is the Washington bureau chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.

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