The first televised Presidential debate on 26 Sep 1960 pre-empted the Andy Griffith show, was watched by over 65-70 million viewers, and is widely credited with erasing Richard M. Nixon's lead over John F. Kennedy in the race to succeed Dwight Eisenhower. Kennedy won in November by a razor-thin margin; Nixon would finally reach the presidency in 1968.
In The Making of the President 1960, Theodore White noted that this was a return of a politics which had disappeared hundreds of years earlier:
What they [the debates] did best was to give the voters of a great democracy a living portrait of two men under stress and let the voters decide, by instinct and emotion, which style and pattern of behavior under stress they preferred in their leader. The political roots of this tribal sense of the whole go back as far as the Roman Senate.....This sense of personal choice of leader has been missing for centuries from modern civilization--or less limited to such conclaves of deputized spokesmen of the whole as a meeting of Tammany Hall captains, a gathering of Communist barons in the Kremlin.....What the TV debates did was to generalize this tribal sense of participation, this emotional judgment of the leader, from the few to the multitude.....
In the 21st century, of course, we take such immediacy of virtual contact with leaders for granted. The Kennedy-Nixon debates are what inaugurated the change to the modern era. In 1950, only 11% of households owned a television set; by 1960 it was 88%.
What was it that Kennedy did which allowed him to capitalize on this technology revolution? Would he have won the election without television?
The 1960 Campaign
John F. Kennedy in 1960 had served eight years in the Senate and had received national exposure at the 1956 Democratic convention, though he had finished second to Estes Kefauver in balloting for Vice-President (Adlai Stevenson headed the ticket). His opponent was Republican Richard M. Nixon, two-term Vice-President to the popular incumbent Dwight Eisenhower.
Nixon was generally favored to win the election, and polls in the late summer following the conventions gave him a 6-point edge. He was somewhat successful in portraying Kennedy as inexperienced and unready to be Commander-in-Chief. Kennedy also had to overcome the stigma of being Roman Catholic in a country which had never before elected a Catholic President, though Kennedy gave a thoughtful speech on the matter on September 12 in Houston and effectively dispelled the issue.
In 1960 the Cold War was in full swing - Fidel Castro had been in power in Cuba for over a year, most of the public and much of the leadership believed that the US faced a "missile gap" with the Soviet Union (the reverse was actually the case), and in general Americans felt besieged by the "Communist menace." The era of witch hunts led by Joseph McCarthy, a friend of the Kennedys, was still a fresh memory.
As usual for the era, the candidates gave many speeches and were interviewed by newspapermen. They also made appearances on radio and television, including shows like Meet the Press and Face the Nation. But for the first time ever, Presidential candidates agreed to debate each other on television. Nixon, hoping for a single "knockout blow," negotiated for a single debate; Kennedy wanted five. They settled on four.
The first debate was held on September 26 in Chicago, and was devoted to domestic policy. Kennedy prepped that day with aides Ted Sorenson, Richard Goodwin, and Mike Feldman, who according to Theodore White had "operated like young men at college cramming for an exam." JFK and his aides spent that Monday morning coming up with the candidate's opening statement and going over policy details. Kennedy had a nap in the afternoon, after which the "brain trust" met again, JFK sitting on his bed with prepared fact cards, reading each while firing questions at his aides, and then flinging the card onto the floor of the hotel room. Then it was off to the debate.
Nixon, by contrast, spent the day alone, with barely a visitor or phone call. He had been nursing a knee injury, which he inflamed again on the way to the studio by striking it against a car door.
During the evening debate, both men spoke about issues in some detail, at least by television standards. Radio listeners polled after the debate generally thought that Nixon had bested Kennedy. But the story with television viewers was different, polling almost two-to-one in favor of Kennedy as the "victor" in the debate.
What accounts for this difference? Certainly one part was simply physical appearance - Nixon had pasty skin and a 5 o'clock shadow, sweated and looked somewhat sickly and even haggard, and appeared glowering and angry at times. Kennedy, by contrast, appeared relaxed, vigorous, and fit.
More than just appearance was at play, though - Kennedy seems to have been aware of television as a medium. Nixon addressed himself in his opening and closing statements, debate-style, to Kennedy, agreeing with Kennedy's goals but disagreeing on the methods to achieve them. Kennedy, on the other hand, appealed directly to American viewers. According to Robert Dallek, author of An Unfinished Life:
The difference was telling; Kennedy came across as a leader who intended to deal with the nation's greatest problems; Nixon registered with voters as someone trying to gain an advantage over an adversary.
Nixon's running mate, Henry Cabot Lodge, had this reaction: "That son of a bitch just lost the election."
The mere fact that Kennedy stood on the same stage with Nixon, and at minimum held his own, helped Kennedy's stature and erased Nixon's main argument against his opponent, that he was unequal to the task of being president.
Three more debates were held in October. By the time they ended, Kennedy was ahead in the polls.
Kennedy, Nixon, and Cuba
Candidates Kennedy and Nixon, with moderator Howard K. Smith between them.
The last of four debates concerned foreign policy, and front and center was the issue of Cuba, where Fidel Castro had seized power less than two years earlier. Castro had traveled to the US in April 1959 and met with Vice-President Nixon, who famously concluded in a memo that Castro was "either incredibly naive about communism or under communist discipline--my guess is the former." The following year, Nixon spearheaded the planning for what became Kennedy's botched Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba.
Kennedy opportunistically made hay with the Eisenhower administration's inaction on Cuba, even to the point of issuing an October campaign statement that he favored unilateral intervention in Cuba, withdrawn after outcry from liberals within his party. In the debates, Nixon was put in the peculiar position of defending a policy of restraint when he was in fact secretly managing plans for an invasion (Kennedy had been informed of the planning by CIA Director Allen Dulles following his nomination).
Kennedy's aggressive rhetoric on foreign policy issues probably helped him squeak out a victory in the election. His actual views seem clearly more moderate. While authorizing the failed Bay of Pigs invasion and later sabotage under Operation Mongoose, and increasing America's involvement in Vietnam, JFK also resisted military calls for combat troops in Laos and Vietnam, successfully avoided escalation during the Cuban Missile Crisis, and in 1963 secretly pursued accommodation and peace in both Vietnam and Cuba.
The Impact of the Debates
The 1960 electoral college map. Blue states were won by Kennedy-Johnson; red states by Nixon-Lodge. Orange represents Democratic electors who refused to vote for Kennedy because of his pro-civil-rights stand.
While it is impossible to know for certain, it seems highly probable that without the televised debates, Kennedy would have lost the 1960 election to Nixon. As it was, Kennedy got 0.1% more votes than Nixon. In the Electoral College, he won with 303 votes to Nixon's 219 (269 were needed to win). It is thus a myth that if Kennedy had not won Illinois, where (credible) allegations of vote stealing in Chicago were rampant, he would have lost--at least one other state would have needed to change hands as well.
The Kennedy-Nixon debates ushered in a new relationship between the government and media, and an immediacy and connection between politicians and the general public. Kennedy's youth and style, his ease with the media, and his attractive wife Jackie, all fed this transition in politics.
Three years later, citizens would again be glued to their televisions during four days of televised coverage following Kennedy's assassination.