The September 26, 1960 Kennedy-Nixon debate was the first televised presidential debate and is an interesting watch from many angles. Revisiting it’s a good preface to what is to come tonight at 9 p.m. Eastern, 6 p.m. Pacific—mild and sedate by comparison, it set the stage for tonight’s shenanigans. Here are a few things to know:
- The Kennedy-Nixon debates not only had a major impact on the election’s outcome, but ushered in a new era in which crafting a public image and taking advantage of media exposure became essential ingredients of a successful political campaign.
- The people who watched the debate saw Kennedy as the clear winner; the people who heard it on the radio thought Nixon was the clear winner.
- Two-thirds of the U.S. adults watched the debate, roughly 70 million.
- That first debate ushered in a new era in which crafting a public image and taking advantage of media exposure became essential ingredients of a successful political campaign.
- The country was engaged in a heated Cold War with the Soviet Union, which had just taken the lead in the space race by launching the Sputnik satellite.
- The Kennedy-Nixon debate preempted The Andy Griffith Show.
- After the debate, Nixon’s running mate, Henry Cabot Lodge, said: “That son of a bitch just lost the election.”
- Frank Stanton, president of CBS at the time, said, “Kennedy was bronzed beautifully . . . Nixon looked like death.”
The first question of the evening was addressed to Senator Kennedy:
MR. FLEMING: Senator, the Vice President in his campaign has said that you were naive and at times immature. He has raised the question of leadership. On this issue, why do you think people should vote for you rather than the Vice President?
MR. KENNEDY: Well, the Vice President and I came to the Congress together 1946; we both served in the Labor Committee. I’ve been there now for fourteen years, the same period of time that he has, so that our experience in uh – government is comparable. Secondly, I think the question is uh – what are the programs that we advocate, what is the party record that we lead? I come out of the Democratic party, which in this century has produced Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman, and which supported and sustained these programs which I’ve discussed tonight. Mr. Nixon comes out of the Republican party. He was nominated by it. And it is a fact that through most of these last twenty-five years the Republican leadership has opposed federal aid for education, medical care for the aged, development of the Tennessee Valley, development of our natural resources. I think Mr. Nixon is an effective leader of his party. I hope he would grant me the same. The question before us is: which point of view and which party do we want to lead the United States?
MR. SMITH: Mr. Nixon, would you like to comment on that statement?
Mr. NIXON: I have no comment.
Now then, let’s see what tonight brings. And, regardless of the shenanigans or who you believe in or who you support, get out and vote.