Kennedy-Nixon Debate - September 26, 1960

Presidential politics in America changed with the Nixon-Kennedy debates. 

JFK, seemingly more relaxed in front of the camera than his opponent, impressed television viewers. Individuals, who'd heard the debate on the radio, apparently thought Nixon had won.

This debate took place in Chicago, at the CBS studios. Howard K. Smith was the moderator. 

Questioners were:

This first Nixon-Kennedy debate covered domestic issues such as:

  • Health care;
  • The U.S. economy;
  • Labor;
  • The Cold War;
  • Education; and
  • Farming.

Both candidates gave an eight-minute opening and a three-minute closing. 

Historians agree that this debate was a turning point for JFK in his 1960 campaign for president.

Why did this debate fundamentally change politics, not just for Nixon and Kennedy but for future politicians? In short ... because it was televised.

Alan Schroeder, a media historian and associate professor at Northeastern University, says:

It's one of those unusual points on the timeline of history where you can say things changed very dramatically — in this case, in a single night. (See Schroeder’s book, Presidential Debates: Forty Years of High-Risk TV.)

During the debate, Nixon appeared pale and sweaty, sickly and underweight. That’s hardly surprising since he’d recently been hospitalized.

Kennedy, on the other hand, appeared tanned and rested ... which he was. Even while practicing for the debate, with his advisor Ted Sorensen, he was sunning himself on the roof of his Chicago hotel.

Why did this televised debate matter so much?

Because in 1960, around 88% of U.S. households had TVs. That compares to about 11% during the previous decade. This meant Americans, throughout the country, were able to watch the two candidates “have a go” at each other.

Until that September 1960 debate, “the TV” was purely a source of entertainment. After that debate, it was no-longer “business as usual.”

Both the Kennedy and Nixon campaign staffs realized how powerful television had become in American politics. Larry Sabato, political analyst at the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, explains why:

Before the television debates most Americans didn't even see the candidates — they read about them, they saw photos of them.  This [television] allowed the public to judge candidates on a completely different basis.

Then, and ever after, it matters how a candidate appears on television. If the most-qualified candidate isn’t telegenic, what are the chances that he or she will actually become the political party’s nominee?

Nixon was stunned by the negative impact of his first television debate with Kennedy. Although he tried various things—like drinking milkshakes to gain more weight—he was never able to make up the ground he’d lost on September 26.

During his future runs for the presidency, Nixon refused to participate in TV debates. Lyndon Johnson refused, too. They were unwilling to risk the potential of being viewed negatively. In fact, there were no televised presidential debates for another sixteen years:

The next televised presidential debate wouldn't take place for 16 years, largely because candidates became wary of their influence. Lyndon B. Johnson was too intimidated by the medium to take on Barry Goldwater in 1964, and Nixon, having been burned before, refused to debate on TV in both 1968 and 1972.

Televised debates reemerged in 1976, when incumbent president Gerald Ford agreed to take on his Democratic challenger, Jimmy Carter. They've been standard practice in each campaign season since. (See “How the Nixon-Kennedy Debate Changed the World,” by Kayla Webley, published in TIME Magazine on September 23, 2010.)

Fifty years after "Kennedy Met Nixon," Ted Sorensen—JFK's key advisor and speech writer—provides insights on "the real story" behind the debates.  (The linked New York Times article may require a log-in to review.  It is a free service.) 

Although Kennedy defeated Nixon - on November 8, 1960 - both men eventually became U.S. presidents. And ... both men left office before their term expired:

See, also:

Kennedy-Nixon Debates, Part 2

Kennedy-Nixon Debates, Part 3

Kennedy-Nixon Debates, Part 4

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Author: Carole D. Bos, J.D. 5190stories and lessons created

Original Release: Oct 07, 2013

Updated Last Revision: Feb 26, 2020

Media Credits

September 26, 1960 debate between the Democratic nominee for president (John F. Kennedy) and the Republican nominee (Richard M. Nixon).

Video online, courtesy U.S. National Archives.



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