In 1960, Democratic Sen. John F. Kenney and Republican Vice President Richard Nixon were pioneers in televised presidential debates. Fifty-six years to the day later, Republican nominee Donald Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton are still using the lessons from Nixon and Kennedy as they debate at Hofstra University on Monday.
“The Nixon-Kennedy debate in 1960 has had a lasting legacy,” said Alan Schroeder, journalism professor at Northeastern University. “It struck the fear of God into political candidates.”
The lore from that first of a series of four live televised presidential debate is that the style of Kennedy, the tanned, 43-year-old senator from Massachusetts, defeated the policy substance of Nixon. Nixon was an experienced vice president under popular President Dwight Eisenhower as well as a former congressman and senator. But Nixon, 47, appeared less robust, his eyes furtively shifting to monitors off camera as Kennedy spoke which, on TV at home, made him look shifty. And Nixon appeared to need a shave in some of the images under the harsh lighting.
Researchers and politicians since then have noted that Kennedy’s campaign took more time evaluating how Kennedy would look as well as what he would say, down to wearing very high socks so no skin would show when they sat down and when Kennedy casually crossed his legs. Nixon, meanwhile, who was recovering from a recent knee injury, appeared to sit more awkwardl, seemed gaunt from a recent illness, and wore a gray suit to the studio that on black-and-white TV washed out against the gray backdrop.
Nixon, confident in his vast experience advantage to the junior senator, relied mostly on his record. Kennedy, a little known senator, relied on his “Nixopedia,” a collection of Nixon statements and positions Kennedy committed to memory.
“It was such a stark lesson in the danger of a live debate,” Shroeder said. “Neither had any precedent to work from, yet Nixon failed it terribly and Kennedy did so well. I don’t think there’s a debater since then who hasn’t thought about that.”
Much of the lore about that first presidential debate, however, is myth, said Ron Simon, curator of television and radio at The Paley Center for Media in New York.
For example, the view today that the Massachusetts senator clearly won the debate is based on a poll that is now widely questioned for its small sample and methodology. That poll, however, fed into Kennedy supporters’ claims that the Democrat won among the 60 million TV viewers because he looked better while Nixon won among radio listeners.
Simon said that perception ignores the fact that most TVs at the time were in Northeastern, more wealthy areas with more Democratic voters; more people in heavily Republican areas o f the Midwest listened on radio. Simon said Nixon’s more resonant voice came across better on radio than Kennedy’s higher pitched voice with an Eastern Seaboard accent.
“But everything that has been written about the mythology of the Nixon-Kennedy debate was pretty much from the first three minutes,” Simon said.
Few, however, dispute that the power and peril of a presidential debate became clear. The proof: There wouldn’t be another one for 16 years. President Lyndon B. Johnson refused and, after him, comeback candidate Nixon in 1968 refused. Still chastened by the ’60 debate, Nixon also refused to debate when he ran for re-election 1972. Regular presidential debates resumed in 1976 with Republican President Gerald Ford and Democrat Jimmy Carter.
“This was obviously talked about a lot in the family,” said Ed Cox, the state Republican Party chairman who is Nixon’s son-in-law and an adviser who lived in the White House. “There were a lot of people who listened on radio . . . who said that Vice President Nixon won hands down on points. But as we learned, you don’t win these debates on points. You win it with a knockout blow.”
The takeaway is that campaigns know every debate matters and can swing a close election, as many feel Kennedy did in his narrow electoral win in 1960.
“Initially, they weren’t seen as very big deals,” said Mitchell S. McKinney, professor, department chairman and director of the Political Communication Institute at the University of Missouri. “What we have today is just completely turned on its head.”