The first presidential debate featured two women, and it happened in 1956
The 2020 presidential contest is heating up, marking the official start of the debate season. The first Democratic debates in June drew 15.3-million television viewers, while 24-million people watched then-candidate Trump square off against Hilary Clinton in October 2016. Networks will air no less than six primary debates for the Democrats, followed by two national debates between their candidate and President Trump.
There is a long history of televised debates in the United States, and many would say that the 1960 presidential debate between candidates John F. Kennedy (D) and Richard Nixon (R) was the first one ever televised, but they’d be incorrect.
Actually, the first televised presidential debate took place in 1956, and it featured two women. Democratic candidate Adlai Stevenson challenged incumbent President Dwight Eisenhower to a televised debate, but Eisenhower refused. Instead, his administration decided the best way to have his policies put to the test was to have surrogates stand-in to battle out the issues.
Eisenhower selected Senator Margaret Chase Smith of Maine, who was the first woman to serve in both houses of Congress, while the Democrats chose former First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt.
A product of the times
Presidential debates are largely an invention of television, as these types of events rarely took place prior to 1956. At the time, little was known about what was “good” television and what was bad. Future candidates were then able to learn valuable lessons from watching the debates, as each woman carefully crafted their message in what became the rawest presidential debate in history.
On Nov. 4, 1956, Roosevelt and Senator Smith were the first women ever to be guests on CBS’s longest-running news show, Face the Nation. While Roosevelt was certainly the political powerhouse of the two, having served as First Lady of the nation for 12 years, and as Ambassador to the United Nations for six years, Smith was no slouch herself, having already served in congress for 14 years.
Although the subject matter primarily focused on foreign policy, which certainly favored Roosevelt, Smith had served on the House Armed Services Committee and had been considered as a running mate for President Eisenhower.
But what was of particular note, and what made Smith well-suited to take on Roosevelt, was her outspoken attacks on demagoguery. On June 1, 1950, in response to Senator Joe McCarthy’s witch hunt of suspected communists in the State Department, Smith delivered a 15-minute speech titled, “Declaration of Conscience,” in which she denounced the senator’s actions.
Despite the fact that the Senate was frozen from fear of McCarthy’s call to arms against suspected communists, Smith saw it for the fear-mongering that it was, and got sweet reciprocity when she voted for McCarthy’s censure four years later.
Her bravery and foresight at a time that was dangerous for her to come out against McCarthy earned her a fantastic reputation.
“If I am to be remembered in history, it will not be because of legislative accomplishments, but for an act I took as a legislator in the U.S. Senate when on June 1, 1950, I spoke … in condemnation of McCarthyism,” Smith said.
Smith vs. Roosevelt
More than four years later, just two days before the 1956 presidential election, she would be asked to put herself in the spotlight again, this time in the crosshairs of Eleanor Roosevelt. Smith feared that she couldn’t match Roosevelt’s intelligence, so she focused much of her attention on not only what she said, but how she said it.
A video of the 1956 presidential debate shows Smith well-groomed and put together, all designed to give the viewer a favorable impression of her. She also kept her answers short and concise, while Roosevelt provided long-winded explanations.
The two women did something during the debate that is rare these days — they actually answered the questions asked of them. For thirty minutes the two sparred following questions from a panel of reporters, as each presented their case for why their candidate deserved to be the next president.
Roosevelt soon dominated the discussion, placing blame on President Eisenhower for policies that led to war in the Middle East in the mid-1950s. But it wasn’t until the end of the debate that the sparks began to fly.
Smith had previously requested that she be allowed to read a two-minute closing argument and the moderators of the show agreed (reluctantly). Smith measured her responses, believing that she couldn’t go toe-to-toe with the experienced Roosevelt, so she chose to go on the offensive near the debate’s end.
What happened next was best explained by Smith herself: “What was surprising [about the final statement] was my abrupt change in delivery. It was not the soft, restrained, measured delivery,” that she adopted during the debate. Instead, “it was a biting staccato,” she later said.
Roosevelt was unimpressed by Smith’s closing arguments, and despite the fact that the women knew each other for 20 years, Roosevelt refused to shake Smith’s hand. It’s unclear what effect the debate had on voters, as Eisenhower won the election by a landslide. But its legacy lives on, as it heavily influenced the next presidential debate, which has largely been regarded as the first in history to be “televised.”
In 1960, candidate John F. Kennedy took lessons from Smith, as he appeared tan, well-groomed, and poised, while his challenger Richard Nixon did little preparation, and looked sweaty and disheveled. That election was decided by the thinnest of margins, and it may have been the pointers gleaned from the Smith Roosevelt debate that tipped the scales in Kennedy’s favor.
Roosevelt would go on to serve in the Kennedy administration as Ambassador to the United Nations and the first chairperson for the Presidential Commission on the Status of Women. Smith would continue to serve in the Senate until 1973, later becoming the first female presidential candidate in 1964.
The legacy of the two women and the debate that took place in 1956 is seldom realized, and perhaps now more important than ever, as a record six women contest for the Democratic nomination for President of the United States. Up until this moment, only two other women were able to be included in a presidential debate, and one of their names is Hilary Clinton.
But, in vying for a position that has always gone to a man, this first belongs to the ladies, as the US will see more of them in the 2020 presidential debates and beyond.