At 9.00 p.m. ET, 26 September 1960, Sen. John F. Kennedy (D) and Vice President Richard M. Nixon (R) met each other in the first nationally televised debate between two U.S. presidential candidates.
It was also “the first presidential debate in more than a century.” The two would debate three more times.
However, it wasn’t the first nationally televised debate during a presidential campaign.
Four years earlier, on Sunday 04 November 1956, former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and the senior senator from Maine, Margaret Chase Smith, met on television for the first televised debate in a presidential campaign. Two days before the election, the two were proxies for when Adlai Stevenson (D) who was challenging incumbent president Dwight Eisenhower (R).
When the 1956 campaign began, Roosevelt emerged as Adlai Stevenson’s strongest advocate. She played such a crucial role in cinching his nomination that she became known as the “Heroine of the Convention” and then proved to be a skilled campaigner. Senator Smith also was a seasoned politician by this time. She gained national attention in 1950 when she took on Joe McCarthy, became the first woman to serve on the Armed Services Committee in 1953, and in 1954 easily trounced her opponent to gain reelection. When the Republican National Committee was looking for a worthy opponent for Eleanor Roosevelt, Smith was the logical choice.
The event took place two days before the election, and focused almost entirely on issues of foreign policy. As planned, Smith remained poised and taciturn, a strategy that allowed the more talkative Roosevelt to dominate—until the closing statements. Then, Smith offered a forceful, concise argument that touched on many key issues. “What was surprising” about the final statement “was my abrupt change in delivery,” Smith recalled. “It was not the soft, restrained, measured delivery” of the debate; rather, “it was a biting staccato.” This change in demeanor unnerved and angered Eleanor Roosevelt, who refused to shake hands after the debate.
Read that again.
In 1956 both parties chose women to represent them on national television.
Roosevelt and Smith appeared on CBS Face the Nation, which was in its second season. It was the first time a woman had appeared on the program.
If you’ve not heard of their meeting, that’s not a huge surprise. The New York Times included it at the bottom of a story, “Hall Cries ‘Foul!’ at Rivals’ Blows,” on page 38. Some newspapers across the country ran an AP story, “Sen. Margaret Smith, Mrs. F.D.R., Disagree.”
Media history, and academic analysis, focus (almost exclusively) on the first Kennedy-Nixon debate.
Going into the debate, Nixon was the favorite to win the election. He had been President Dwight Eisenhower’s vice president for eight years. Nixon had shown his mastery of television in his 1952 “Checkers” speech, where he used a televised address to debunk slush-fund allegations, and secure his vice presidential slot by talking about his pet dog, Checkers. Nixon had also bested Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev in the famous Kitchen Debate.
Kennedy was the photogenic and energetic young senator from Massachusetts who ran a calculated primary campaign to best his chief rival, Senator Lyndon Johnson. But Kennedy had debate experience in the primaries and said, “Nixon may have debated Khrushchev, but I had to debate Hubert Humphrey.”
Each candidate was allowed an eight-minute opening statement and a three-minute closing one. In-between, a moderator asked questions, allowing two and a half minutes for answers and one and a half minutes for comments directed to their opponent.
Like the 1956 event, the debate was broadcast from CBS studios.
The New York Times later observed that the evening was “distinguished by a suavity, earnestness and courtesy that suggested that the two men were more concerned about ‘image projection’ to their huge television audience than about scoring debating points.”
Likewise, the London Guardian dubbed the debate one “Killed by Courtesy.”
After the first Kennedy-Nixon debate, Roosevelt had congratulated Sen. Kennedy:
Post-debate polling in 10 cities suggested most voters were not influenced. But “of those who said they were influenced… more leaned towards Kennedy than Nixon.”
Six weeks later, 63.5 percent of the 108,458,oo0 Americans of voting age cast a ballot. Kennedy won the Electoral College vote decisively (303-219 with 15 unpledged) and narrowly won the popular vote (49.7 percent to 49.5 percent, the closest since 1916).
As a comparison, in 2020 66.8 percent of the 231,600,000 Americans of voting age cast a ballot. Joe Biden defeated incumbent Donald Trump in both Electoral College vote (306 to 232) and popular vote (51.3 percent to 46.9 percent).
Television’s importance as a news source
In 1955, Congressional Quarterly had published an analysis of the impact that television, by then a well-adopted medium, might have on the 1956 political campaign.
More than 35 million receiving sets, fed by four national networks and some 400 individual telecasting stations, are in use today. Nine at of ten families live in areas where programs can be received from at least one TV outlet.
President Eisenhower, speaking informally to the National Association of Radio and Television Broadcasters on May 25, 1955, mentioned broadcasting’s growing power “in swaying public opinion.” He called radio and television “a mighty force in our civilization, one that is certain to grow…and be more powerful in its influence upon all of us.”
By 1960, from 65 million to 70 million Americans would watch the debates. The U.S. population in 1960 was 180 million.
Research suggested that appearances mattered.
Nixon showed up wearing little makeup and a light grey suit, which blended into the background. He was constantly wiping sweat off his face and according to the audience looked exhausted and pale. Not only was Nixon’s physical appearance an issue, but Nixon kept looking at a clock, which television viewers could not see making him appear shifty-eyed. Unknown to the general public at the time, Nixon’s extensive campaigning left him physically exhausted, disheveled and made him lose about 15 pounds. After the devastating effects from the first debate, Nixon slowed down his campaigning and regained his healthy appearance.
Frank Stanton, the president of CBS, observed: “Kennedy was bronzed beautifully … Nixon looked like death.”
The debate was also broadcast over radio networks.
According to one oft-cited survey, people who listened to the debate on the radio tended to call it a draw, while those who saw it on television pronounced Kennedy the clear winner.
Subsequent analysis has questioned the validity of that survey. Howard K. Smith, the debate moderator, “initially gave the slight edge to Nixon, but changed his mind after watching a replay. ‘I could see that Kennedy swept it,’ he said in an interview for the Archive of American Television. ‘He just looked so enchanting.’”
Moreover, radio homes were more likely to be rural and “tended to be Protestant.” That religious orientation could have led to bias against Kennedy, who would become the first Catholic to be elected President.
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