On This Day

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Associated Press
John F. Kennedy, left, and Richard M. Nixon are shown following their nationally televised presidential debate, Sept. 26, 1960.

On This Day: Nixon and Kennedy Hold First Ever Presidential Debate

September 26, 2011 06:00 AM
by findingDulcinea Staff
On Sept. 26, 1960, 70 million American viewers watched the first presidential debate between candidates Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy.

The Great Debate

Vice President Richard Nixon, the Republican nominee, and Massachusetts Sen. John F. Kennedy, the Democratic nominee, agreed to hold four debates during the 1960 campaign for president. They were the first debates ever to be held between the presidential nominees of the two major parties during the election season.

The 43-year-old Kennedy, a relative unknown on the national stage, challenged Nixon to the debates in an attempt to raise his profile. The debates were broadcast on the three major networks (CBS, NBC, ABC). The first debate, focusing on domestic affairs, was held Sept. 26 at the WBBM studio in Chicago and was moderated by journalist Howard K. Smith.

Nixon was confident; he was a skilled debater who had used television to his advantage in the Alger Hiss hearings, the “Checkers speech,” and other occasions as vice president. However, an infection had hospitalized him for two weeks, and he did little to prepare for the debate.
Kennedy was fit and tanned, and wore a dark suit that stood out against the set’s gray backdrop. Nixon, on the other hand, looked pale and sickly, refused to put on make-up, and wore an-ill-fitting shirt and gray suit that faded into the background.

When answering questions, Sen. Kennedy looked directly into the camera, and when he wasn’t speaking he focused his attention on Nixon’s answers. In contrast, Nixon directed his answers to the panel of journalists asking the questions.

To the 70 million television viewers, Kennedy looked confident, charismatic and presidential. His appearance gave him the decisive edge over Nixon, according to a much-cited poll that found the majority of television audience felt Kennedy had won, while radio listeners favored Nixon.

The accuracy of this finding has been questioned in recent years. Only 282 radio listeners and they were not asked if they were Nixon or Kennedy supporters; it is therefore very possible that more Nixon supporters were polled than Kenney supporters.

The History of Presidential Debates

The first major debates with national implications took place in 1858, when Illinois Sen. Stephen Douglas, running for re-election, agreed to a series of seven debates with challenger Abraham Lincoln. The debates, which focused on the future of slavery in America, transformed Lincoln into a national figure and played a large role in Lincoln’s victory over Douglas and two other candidates in the 1860 presidential election.

The first debate involving presidential candidates did not occur until 1948, when Thomas Dewey and Harold Stassen, the two main contenders for the Republican nomination, held a radio debate. Eight years later, Democrats Adlai Stevenson and Estes Kefauver had a televised debate during the Democratic primary.

After 1960, three presidential elections passed without a debate. In 1976, President Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter staged three debates, while the vice presidents also staged a debate. Since then, there have been multiple presidential debates every election, and a vice presidential debate in every election but 1980.

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