1960 Kennedy-Nixon Presidential Debate
Backstory and Context
On 26 September 1960, 70 million U.S. viewers tuned in to watch Senator John Kennedy of Massachusetts and Vice President Richard Nixon in the first-ever televised presidential debate. It was the first of four televised "Great Debates" between Kennedy and Nixon. The first debate centered on domestic issues. The high point of the second debate, on 7 October, was disagreement over U.S. involvement in two small islands off the coast of China, and on 13 October, Nixon and Kennedy continued this dispute. On 21 October, the final debate, the candidates focused on American relations with Cuba.
The Great Debates marked television's grand entrance into presidential politics. They afforded the first real opportunity for voters to see their candidates in competition, and the visual contrast was dramatic. In August, Nixon had seriously injured his knee and spent two weeks in the hospital. By the time of the first debate he was still twenty pounds underweight, his pallor still poor. He arrived at the debate in an ill-fitting shirt, and refused make-up to improve his color and lighten his perpetual "5:00 o'clock shadow." Kennedy, by contrast, had spent early September campaigning in California. He was tan and confident and well-rested. "I had never seen him looking so fit," Nixon later wrote.
In substance, the candidates were much more evenly matched. Indeed, those who heard the first debate on the radio pronounced Nixon the winner. But the 70 million who watched television saw a candidate still sickly and obviously discomforted by Kennedy's smooth delivery and charisma. Those television viewers focused on what they saw, not what they heard. Studies of the audience indicated that, among television viewers, Kennedy was perceived the winner of the first debate by a very large margin.
The televised Great Debates had a significant impact on voters in 1960, on national elections since, and, indeed, on our concerns for democracy itself. The impact on the election of 1960 was significant, albeit subtle. Commentators broadly agree that the first debate accelerated Democratic support for Kennedy. In hindsight, however, it seems the debates were not, as once thought, the turning-point in the election. Rather than encouraging viewers to change their vote, the debates appear to have simply solidified prior allegiances. In short, many would argue that Kennedy would have won the election with or without the Great Debates.
Yet voters in 1960 did vote with the Great Debates in mind. At election time, more than half of all voters reported that the Great Debates had influenced their opinion; 6% reported that their vote was the result of the debates alone. Thus, regardless of whether the debates changed the election result, voters pointed to the debates as a significant reason for electing Kennedy.
The Great Debates had a significant impact beyond the election of 1960, as well. They served as precedent around the world: Soon after the debates, Germany, Sweden, Finland, Italy, and Japan established debates between contenders for national office. Moreover, the Great Debates created a precedent in American presidential politics. Federal laws requiring that all candidates receive equal air-time stymied debates for the next three elections, as did Nixon's refusal to debate in 1968 and 1972. Yet by 1976, the law and the candidates had both changed, and ever since, presidential debates, in one form or another, have been a fixture of U.S. presidential politics.
Perhaps most important, the Great Debates forced citizens to rethink how democracy would work in a television era. To what extent does television change debate, indeed, change campaigning altogether? What is the difference between a debate that "just happens" to be broadcast and one specifically crafted for television? What is lost in the latter? Do televised debates really help us to evaluate the relative competencies of the candidates, to evaluate policy options, to increase voter participation and intellectual engagement, to strengthen national unity? The Nixon-Kennedy debates of 1960 brought these questions to the floor. Perhaps as no other single event, the Great Debates forced us to ponder the role of television in democratic life.1