The First Televised Presidential Debate

JFK and Nixon post debate

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The first televised presidential debate took place on Sept. 26, 1960, between Vice President Richard M. Nixon and U.S. Senator John F. Kennedy. The first televised debate is considered among the most important in American history not just because of its use of a new medium but its impact on the presidential race that year.

Many historians believe Nixon's ​pale, sickly and sweaty appearance helped to seal his demise in the 1960 presidential election, even though he and Kennedy were considered equals in their knowledge of policy issues. "On sound points of argument," The New York Times later wrote, "Nixon probably took most of the honors." Kennedy went on to win the election that year.

Criticism of TV Influence on Politics

The introduction of television to the electoral process forced candidates to tend not only the substance of serious policy issues but such stylistic matters as their manner of dress and haircut. Some historians have bemoaned the introduction of television to the political process, particularly the presidential debates.

"The present formula of TV debate is designed to corrupt the public judgment and, eventually, the whole political process," historian Henry Steele Commager wrote in the Times after the Kennedy-Nixon debates of 1960. "The American presidency is too great an office to be subjected to the indignity of this technique."

Other critics have argued that the introduction of television to the political process forces candidates to speak in short sound bites that can be cut and rebroadcast for easy consumption through advertisements or news broadcasts. The effect has been to remove most nuanced discussion of serious issues from American discourse.

Support for Televised Debates

The reaction wasn't all negative to the first televised presidential debate. Some journalists and media critics said the medium allowed broader access to Americans of the often cryptic political process.

Theodore H. White, writing in The Making of the President 1960, said the televised debates allowed for the "simultaneous gathering of all the tribes of America to ponder their choice between two chieftains in the largest political convocation in the history of man."

Another media heavyweight, Walter Lippmann, described the 1960 presidential debates as a "bold innovation which is bound to be carried forward into future campaigns and could not now be abandoned."

Format of the First Televised Presidential Debate

An estimated 70 million Americans tuned in to the first televised debate, which was the first of four that year and the first time two presidential candidates met face-to-face during a general election campaign. The first televised debate was broadcast by CBS affiliate WBBM-TV in Chicago, which aired the forum in place of the regularly scheduled Andy Griffith Show.

The moderator of the first 1960 presidential debate was CBS journalist Howard K. Smith. The forum lasted 60 minutes and focused on domestic issues. A panel of three journalists—Sander Vanocur of NBC News, Charles Warren of Mutual News, and Stuart Novins of CBS—asked questions of each candidate.

Both Kennedy and Nixon were allowed to make 8-minute opening statements and 3-minute closing statements. In between, they were allowed 2 and a half minutes to respond to questions and a short amount of time for rebuttals to their opponent.

Behind the First Televised Presidential Debate

The producer and director of the first televised presidential debate was Don Hewitt, who later went on to create the popular television news magazine 60 Minutes on CBS. Hewitt has advanced the theory that television viewers believed Kennedy won the debate because of Nixon's sickly appearance, and radio listeners who could not see either candidate thought the vice president emerged victorious.

In an interview with the Archive of American Television, Hewitt described Nixon's appearance as "green, sallow" and said the Republican was in need of a clean shave. While Nixon believed the first televised presidential debate to be "just another campaign appearance," Kennedy knew the event was momentous and rested beforehand. "Kennedy took it seriously," Hewitt said. About Nixon's appearance, he added: "Should a presidential election turn on makeup? No, but this one did."

A Chicago newspaper wondered, perhaps in jest, whether Nixon had been sabotaged by his makeup artist.

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Murse, Tom. "The First Televised Presidential Debate." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, Murse, Tom. (2020, August 27). The First Televised Presidential Debate. Retrieved from Murse, Tom. "The First Televised Presidential Debate." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 10, 2023).