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John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon in the First Televised Debate

Updated: Apr 16, 2022

On the evening of September 26, 1960, John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon squared off in the first televised presidential debates in American history. The Kennedy-Nixon debates not only had a major impact on the election’s outcome, but ushered in a new era in which crafting a public image and taking advantage of media exposure became essential ingredients of a successful political campaign. They also heralded the central role television has continued to play in the democratic process. Kennedy used television strategies to help him win the election:

When the two candidates arrived at the CBS broadcast facility in downtown Chicago for the first televised presidential debate in American history, Nixon’s streak of bad luck continued. Stepping out of the car, he banged his bad knee and exacerbated his earlier injury. The vice president had recently suffered a bout of the flu and was still running a low fever, yet he had nonetheless spent a grueling day on the campaign trail and looked drained. Kennedy, meanwhile, had been holed up in a hotel with his aides for an entire weekend, fielding practice questions and resting up for the first of four “Great Debates.” Despite Nixon’s exhaustion and Kennedy’s preparedness, the Republican and Democrat were more or less evenly matched when it came to substance. Each held forth skillfully and presented remarkably similar agendas. Both emphasized national security, the threat of communism, the need to strengthen the U.S. military and the importance of building a brighter future for America. While most radio listeners called the first debate a draw or pronounced Nixon the victor, the senator from Massachusetts won over the 70 million television viewers by a broad margin. Here are some opening comments from the candidates:

The U.S. presidential election of 1960 came at a decisive time in American history. The country was engaged in a heated Cold War with the Soviet Union, which had just taken the lead in the space race by launching the Sputnik satellite. The rise of Fidel Castro’s revolutionary regime in Cuba had heightened fears about the spread of communism in the Western Hemisphere. On the domestic front, the struggle for civil rights and desegregation had deeply divided the nation, raising crucial questions about the state of democracy in the United States. Here the candidates answer questions from by the moderators:

At a time when the need for strong leadership was all too obvious, two vastly different candidates vied for the presidency: John F. Kennedy, a young but dynamic Massachusetts senator from a powerful New England family, and Richard Nixon, a seasoned lawmaker who was currently serving as vice president. With little more than a single unremarkable term in the U.S. senate under his belt, the 43-year-old Kennedy lacked Nixon’s extensive foreign policy experience and had the disadvantage of being one of the first Catholics to run for president on a major party ticket. Nixon, by contrast, had spent nearly eight years as the country’s second-in-command after an illustrious career in Congress during which he cast crucial votes on a variety of domestic issues, became one of global communism’s most outspoken critics and helped expose Alger Hiss’ alleged espionage attempt–all by the age of 39.

Televised debates have become a permanent feature of the American political landscape, helping to shape the outcomes of both primary and general elections. Along with distinguishing themselves from their opponents, candidates have the opportunity to showcase their oratory skills (or betray their inarticulateness), display their sense of humor (or reveal their lack thereof) and capitalize on their rivals’ gaffes (or seal their fate with a slip of the tongue).

A month and a half later, Americans turned out to vote in record numbers. As predicted, it was a close election, with Kennedy winning the popular vote 49.7 percent to 49.5 percent. Polls revealed that more than half of all voters had been influenced by the Great Debates, while 6 percent claimed that the debates alone had decided their choice. Whether or not the debates cost Nixon the presidency, they were a major turning point in the 1960 race and in the history of television.

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