John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon, the Democratic and Republican nominees for President in 1960, respectively, engaged in a series of four nationally televised debates. The first debate on September 26, 1960, was held in Chicago. The second debate on October 7, 1960, was held in Washington, DC. The third debate on October 13, 1960, had the candidates broadcasting from New York and Los Angele via a split screen. The fourth and final debate on October 21, 1960, was held in New York.
These were the first televised Presidential debates ever. “The Great Debates marked television’s grand entrance into presidential politics,” wrote Erika Tyner Allen in the Museum of Broadcast Communications Encyclopedia of Television. “They afforded the first real opportunity for voters to see their candidates in competition, and the visual contrast was dramatic.” Bruce DuMont, a nationally syndicated radio talk show host and president of the Museum of Broadcast Communications commented “I don’t think it’s overstating the fact that, on that date, politics and television changed forever…. After that debate, it was not just what you said in a campaign that was important, but how you looked saying it.” James Reston of the New York Times concluded that the debates were “a great improvement over the [candidates’] frantic rushing about the nation, roaring at great howling mobs….” And, Walter Lippmann called the debates a “bold innovation which is bound to be carried forward into future campaigns and could not now be abandoned.”
It is generally regarded that these debates were very influential in the outcome of the hotly contested, tight election. Political observers at the time felt that Kennedy won the first debate. According to the Gallup Organization, Nixon held a 47 to 46 percent lead over Kennedy the week before the debate; Kennedy had a three-percentage point advantage the week after. Nixon won the second debate, with the third and fourth debates, which was seen as the strongest performance by both men, being a draw. Each debate had an audience of more than 60 million people. The first debate had the most viewers. In second place was the third debate, with the second debate coming in third. The fourth debate had the fewest watchers. More than 100 million people saw at least one of the four broadcasts.
The first debate lasted 60 minutes. The focus of the debate was domestic policy issues. The format for the debate was that each candidate had eight minutes for opening statements, two and a half minute responses to questions from the panel with optional rebuttal, and, three minutes for closing statements. Among the domestic topics the candidates discussed were the economy, farm policy, the national debt, educational standards, a 25-cent minimum wage and their experience and qualifications to be president.
It is interesting to note that, while most radio listeners called the first debate a draw or pronounced Nixon the victor, Kennedy won over the 70 million television viewers by a broad margin. The consensus of the pundits was that Nixon’s televised appearance was a visual detriment-he appeared pale and underweight from a recent hospitalization, while Kennedy appeared calm and confident. In the aftermath of the first debate, Nixon’s running mate, Henry Cabot Lodge, had a few choice words for the GOP presidential candidate: “That son-of-a-bitch just lost us the election,” he reportedly said. Lyndon Baines Johnson (LBJ), who was Kennedy’s running mate, listened to the debate on radio and thought JFK had lost the debate. (https://constitutioncenter.org/blog/the-debate-that-changed-the-world-of-politics) “Until the camera opened on the Senator and the Vice President,” wrote the journalist Theodore H. White, “Kennedy had been the boy under assault and attack by the Vice President as immature, young, inexperienced. Now, obviously, in flesh and behavior, he was the Vice-President’s equal.”
The second debate took place on Friday, October 7. The only change in the format was that there was no opening or closing statement. Nixon, having learned from the first debate, took steps to improve his appearance-he wore a dark suit and opted for professional make up. The focus of the questioning was foreign policy, particularly cold war issues relating to Fidel Castro’s communist takeover of Cuba, the downing of Francis Gary Power’s American U-2 spy plane over the Soviet Union and the subsequent canceling of the U.S.-Soviet summit set for May 1960, and the status of Quemoy and Matsu. Quemoy and Matsu are part of a 19-island chain within artillery range of mainland China and 100 miles from Chiang Kai-shek’s Formosa. Chiang’s nationalist Chinese held the islands and China wanted them back. In light of some verbal jousting between the candidates in the days leading up to the debate, civil rights issues also had the attention of the questioners. The second debate was considered a tie, with a slight advantage given to Nixon for his forceful articulation of the strategic importance of Quemoy and Matsu, i.e. to what extent should the U.S. defend the two off-shore islands from attack by the Chinese communists.
On Thursday, October 13, the third debate was the first genuine “electronic debate.” Utilizing a split-screen, the two candidates faced off from opposite coasts–Kennedy spoke from a television studio in New York and Nixon from Los Angeles. There was no opening or closing statements; each candidate was questioned in turn with two and a half minutes to answer; one and a half minute rebuttals were optional. The candidates largely continued their debate about Quemoy and Matsu, and whether military force should be used to prevent the buffer islands between China and Taiwan from falling under Chinese control. Agricultural policies, such as whether to increase direct financial aid to farmers, were discussed. In contrast to Nixon, Kennedy was in favor of a reduction of agricultural aid. The consensus of observers thought Nixon was the clear winner of this stage, although not by such a margin that it changed the trajectory of the election.
The fourth debate was Friday October 21. It focused on international issues/foreign policy. The rules called for eight-minute opening statements; each candidate would be questioned in turn with two and a half minutes to answer and one-and-a-half-minute rebuttal; three-minute closing statements were permitted. This debate, broadcast by ABC, focused on foreign policy issues, particularly U.S. relations with Cuba due to Kennedy’s day-before statement that the U.S. government should support “non-Batista democratic anti-Castro forces in exile … who offer eventual hope of overthrowing Castro.” Nixon called Kennedy’s plan “dangerously irresponsible” but actually supported the idea in private. The issue helped Kennedy look tougher on Cuba than Nixon. The remainder of the debate was a reiteration of previous themes.
A month and a half later, Americans turned out to vote in record numbers. As predicted, it was a close election, with Kennedy winning the popular vote 49.7 percent to 49.5 percent. Polls revealed that more than half of all voters had been influenced by the Great Debates, while 6 percent claimed that the debates alone had decided their choice. Whether or not the debates cost Nixon the presidency, they were a major turning point in the 1960 race—and in the history of television. Nixon apparently believed the debates were decisive. He refused to participate in any televised debates when he ran for president in 1968 and again in 1972.