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1960–Kennedy/Nixon Debates–David Geaney

The 1960 election was the first time that general election candidates took part in nationally televised debates. This added a new element to presidential election campaigns, as candidates not only had to sound good for the radio, but look good for the television as well. This new means of communication favored those who looked strong and authoritative, not only those who sounded the part. The adaption to this new form of mainstream media was quicker for some candidates than for others.

The 1960 election between John F Kennedy and Richard Nixon was extremely close. One of the events that many believe turned the tide was the first nationally televised debate. To many American’s who listened to the first debate on the radio, Richard Nixon was labeled the victor in the debate, but to the greater number of people that watched the first debate on television, John F Kennedy was overwhelmingly seen as the victor. Why was there such a disparity between the opinions of listeners and viewers?

In the first debate Nixon did not take as much consideration to his appearance as Kennedy did; he was recovering from an illness brought about by an injury suffered campaigning in North Carolina and looked pale, tired, and underweight. Nixon did not take into consideration that his appearance would be an issue, so he did not even bother to shave or apply television makeup. This gave him a disheveled look, which did not give him the image of a candidate vying for the presidency. In contrast to Nixon, Kennedy was tan, well rested, and fit, making him look stronger and more forceful than Nixon. Kennedy exuded confidence from the beginning, and his appearance reflected that of a man seeking the presidency. This contrast in appearance can be seen as a determining factor in the differing opinions listeners and viewers had on the subject, as it made Nixon seem weaker than Kennedy.

After the first debate, polls showed that Kennedy had moved from slightly behind Nixon, to just ahead of him, a turning point in the general election. For the subsequent debates Nixon was better prepared and looked the part. The general consensus among political observers at the time was the Nixon won the second and third debate, but that both candidates had their best performance and came to a draw.

Richard Nixon had yet another characteristic that did not help him in his television appearances; he perspired excessively. This perspiration led him to mop his face of the sweat, making him look nervous and unconfident to television viewers. There is some theory that Kennedy’s media team sought to raise the temperature in the studio hours before the debate, so that when the lights came on the candidates would be in extremely hot temperatures, thus causing Nixon to sweat profusely.

Just prior to the debates Richard Nixon injured his knee and it became infected. This made it more difficult for him to stand for the full hour of each debate, as was required, thus making him look shaky, which combined with his profuse sweating, made him look uncomfortable and lacking of confidence in front of an audience.

The image of Richard Nixon increased substantially following the first debate as he and his staff realized the importance of appearance and the nationally televised debates to public opinion and consequently the polls.

The candidates did their best to make it about Democrat v. Republican, rather than Kennedy v. Nixon, as can be seen in the first debate. Kennedy makes it clear that the election should be about parties with the realization that both candidates come from a party and thus represent the ideals of that party. Kennedy says, “I come out of the Democratic party… Mr. Nixon comes out of the Republican Party… I think Mr. Nixon is an effective leader of his party… The question before us is which point of view, and which party do we want to lead the United States.” Kennedy actually compliments Nixon and tries to ensure that rather an attack on character or the individual, at least the first debate should remain about each party and what they have and will do for the country should they be in power the next election.

The debates revolutionized the way the population viewed candidates and required that candidates also look the part if they wanted to stand a viable chance in election. While the subsequent elections did not have nationally televised general election debates, they have become tradition since, thanks to the precedence set by the Kennedy v. Nixon debates in the 1960 general election. 



First Nationally Televised Debate

Republican v Democrat, not candidate v candidate


“Our Campaigns – Event – First Kennedy-Nixon Debate – Sep 26, 1960”.  http://www.ourcampaigns.com/EventDetail.html?EventID=10

“Our Campaigns – Event – Second Kennedy-Nixon Debate – Oct 07, 1960” http://www.ourcampaigns.com/EventDetail.html?EventID=11

“Our Campaigns – Event – Third Kennedy-Nixon Debate – Oct 13, 1960” http://www.ourcampaigns.com/EventDetail.html?EventID=12

“Our Campaigns – Event – Fourth Kennedy-Nixon Debate – Oct 21, 1960” http://www.ourcampaigns.com/EventDetail.html?EventID=13

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