September 26, 1960: First televised Kennedy-Nixon debate
In 2019, it’s hard to imagine an era in which political debates weren’t televised. But prior to 1960, voters relied on radio reports and newspapers to receive information regarding their favorite presidential candidate. Everything changed on September 26, 1960, when presidential candidates John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon met in Chicago to discuss U.S. domestic matters in the first-ever televised presidential debate. Reviewing history, we know who won the debate.
About the candidates
In 1960, voters probably had no idea that both presidential candidates in this debate would eventually become president of the United States. Kennedy, a Democratic senator of Massachusetts, received skeptical remarks from U.S. citizens, who questioned the candidate’s age and experience. However, his charisma and eloquence earned him enough supporters to advance to the national stage against vice president Nixon.
Nixon faced little opposition in the Republican primaries, having already been in the political spotlight as vice president to President Dwight D. Eisenhower. Nixon campaigned on his experience over Kennedy’s, in which Kennedy fired back at his opponent, claiming the Eisenhower-Nixon administration allowed the Soviet Union to overtake the U.S. in ballistic missiles. It was a close race between the candidates, but the debates helped convince voters which candidate to vote for in November 1960.
Nixon was too nervous
On September 26, 1960, Kennedy and Nixon answered questions back-to-back in the first of four televised debates. Kennedy emerged as the apparent winner of the first debate, crediting his photogenic charisma as a contributing factor to his success. Nixon, on the other hand, appeared pale, with a ‘five o’clock shadow,’ and he seemed too nervous in front of the cameras. His performance was criticized as “mediocre.”
Nixon performed better in the second and third debates. In the end, however, Kennedy won the election on November 8, winning 49.7 percent of the popular vote [beating Nixon by only 0.2 percent] in one of the closest presidential elections in U.S. history. After leaving the vice presidency, Nixon won the Republican nomination for governor of California. He successfully won the presidency in 1968, but, like Lyndon B. Johnson, declined to debate in his presidential campaign. Televised debates returned in 1976 and they have been televised ever since.