On September 26, 1960, a pivotal moment in American political and broadcast history occurred as Vice President Richard Nixon and Senator John F. Kennedy participated in the nation’s first-ever televised presidential debate. Held in Chicago and broadcast on CBS, this debate and three subsequent ones before the election of November 8, 1960, transformed the conduct of presidential campaigns. The power of television brought the elections into the living rooms of Americans, making politics an electronic spectator sport.
This groundbreaking debate, watched live by 70 million Americans, provided voters with their first opportunity to see actual presidential candidates in a live environment. It was a chance for potential leaders to showcase their skills and engage with the public. Nixon, who had been a highly popular politician, faced off against Kennedy, a charismatic figure and World War II hero from the prominent Kennedy political dynasty. In the 1960 presidential election, Kennedy emerged as Nixon’s strongest opponent and handed him his only major national defeat. Though Nixon won more states, Kennedy secured victory with a slim margin of 49.7% of the popular vote to Nixon’s 49.6%, thanks in part to the power of television and Kennedy’s ease and charm on the screen.
Leading up to the debate, Nixon faced numerous challenges. He suffered a knee injury on the campaign trail which became infected and resulted in hospitalization. Just before the debate, he was also battling the flu and had reinjured his knee while entering the studio. Additionally, Nixon refused to wear TV make-up, resulting in a pale and sickly appearance. On the other hand, Kennedy appeared vibrant and healthy, with his bright smile shining on black and white television screens.
Despite their similar agendas and skillful presentations, Kennedy won over the 70 million television viewers by a significant margin. Radio listeners, however, largely considered the debate a draw or favored Nixon as the victor. This marked the beginning of televised presidential debates as a crucial factor in determining election outcomes. Notably, there were no presidential-candidate debates televised in 1964, 1968, or 1972, with President Lyndon B. Johnson refusing to participate in 1964.
The historic September 26, 1960 debate forever changed American politics, bringing the power of the television screen into the electoral process. It allowed voters to see and evaluate candidates in real time, influencing their perceptions and ultimately shaping the outcome of the election.