(return to Lines of Inquiry)

In 1960, presidential candidates Richard M. Nixon (Republican) and John F. Kennedy (Democrat) agreed to face each other in a series of debates. For the first time in American history voters were able to see their presidential candidates debate one another. Television, then in its infancy, was quickly becoming a mainstay of American life and culture. With the 1960 debates, it proved to be an integral part of American politics as well. Today, we cannot imagine a political campaign without television advertisements and/or debates. But in 1960, few realized the impact the medium would have on the future of American politics. History in the Making: The Presidential Debates takes you back to the historic 1960 presidential debates and provides an analysis of the event. It would be useful for classes on American History, American Culture, Political Science, Civics, and Communications. It is appropriate for middles school, high school and college.


Students will examine the 1960 presidential debates and gain an understanding of the impact of television on the election results. They will explore the role of television in American politics in the second half of the twentieth century as well as the evolution of the relationship between the camera and the candidates.


History in the Making: The Presidential Debates fulfills the following National Standards for History for grades 5-12: Chronological thinking, historical comprehension, historical analysis and interpretation, historical research capabilities, historical issues-analysis and decision-making for Eras 9 and 10.


Indemnify to secure against hurt, loss, or damage Imply to involve or indicate by inference, association, or necessaryconsequence rather than by direct statement
Anecdote a usually short narrative of an interesting, amusing, or biographicalincident Ideology a manner or the content of thinking characteristic of an individual, group, or culture
Rostrum a stage for public speaking
Substantive having substance: involving matters of major or practicalimportance to all concerned
Facetious joking or jesting often inappropriately
Complacency self-satisfaction accompanied by unawareness of actual dangers or deficiencies
Persona the personality that a person (as an actor or politician) projects in public
Advocate one that defends or maintains a cause or proposal
Subsequent following in time, order, or place
Superlative of, relating to, or constituting the degree of grammatical comparison that denotes an extreme or unsurpassed level or extent


  1. In 1960, presidential debates were televised for the first time. What was the role of television in the outcome of the election? What is the role of television today in presidential elections? How did television change presidential history?
  2. Prior to the advent of television, most Americans got their political news via the radio or newspapers. How does the medium influence the message?
  3. Americans who listened to the debates on radio believed that Nixon had won, while those who saw it on television believed that Kennedy had won. Why the different interpretations and conclusions?
  4. John F. Kennedy was a master of the new medium. How did he prepare for both the content of the debates and the visual aspects of television?
  5. The 1960 debates took place during the height of the Cold war. What was the Cold War? How is a "cold" war different from a "hot" war? How did the Cold War define the second half of the twentieth century?
  6. Discuss how Vice-president Nixon's and Senator Kennedy's opening statements reflected the state of world affairs in 1960.
  7. Why did Vice-president Nixon come off so badly on television?
  8. Discuss the differences between Nixon's and Kennedy's platforms in the 1960 presidential campaign.
  9. What is the role of television in the current presidential campaign?
  10. Television changed the course of American politics. Now a new medium, the Internet is available. How do you think the Internet will change American politics? Do you think its influence will be as dramatic as television's?
  11. Do you think political advertisements are helpful or hurtful to the American voter? Do you think political advertisements should be banned?
  12. Although John F. Kennedy won the 1960 election, Richard M. Nixon also served as President of the United States. Both men's presidencies profoundly affected American history. Compare and contrast the presidencies of these men.


  1. Imagine that your class is voting for the next president. Have two students represent the candidates and debate one another on the issues that are important to Americans today.
  2. Resumes tell an employer about the qualifications and experience of a prospective employee. Research the Internet for information about the political careers of Richard M. Nixon and John K. Kennedy. Use your data to write resumes of the two candidates.
  3. Create campaign posters for Richard M. Nixon and John F. Kennedy


John F. Kennedy's Inaugural Address, January 20, 1961

Vice President Johnson, Mr. Speaker, Mr. Chief Justice, President Eisenhower, Vice President Nixon, President Truman, Reverend Clergy, fellow citizens:

We observe today not a victory of party but a celebration of freedom--symbolizing an end as well as a beginning--signifying renewal as well as change. For I have sworn before you and Almighty God the same solemn oath our forbears prescribed nearly a century and three-quarters ago.
The world is very different now. For man holds in his mortal hands the power to abolish all forms of human poverty and all forms of human life. And yet the same revolutionary beliefs for which our forebears fought are still at issue around the globe--the belief that the rights of man come not from the generosity of the state but from the hand of God. We dare not forget today that we are the heirs of that first revolution. Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans--born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage--and unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this nation has always been committed, and to which we are committed today at home and around the world.
Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty. This much we pledge--and more.
To those old allies whose cultural and spiritual origins we share, we pledge the loyalty of faithful friends. United there is little we cannot do in a host of cooperative ventures. Divided there is little we can do--for we dare not meet a powerful challenge at odds and split asunder.
To those new states whom we welcome to the ranks of the free, we pledge our word that one form of colonial control shall not have passed away merely to be replaced by a far more iron tyranny. We shall not always expect to find them supporting our view. But we shall always hope to find them strongly supporting their own freedom--and to remember that, in the past, those who foolishly sought power by riding the back of the tiger ended up inside.
To those people in the huts and villages of half the globe struggling to break the bonds of mass misery, we pledge our best efforts to help them help themselves, for whatever period is required--not because the communists may be doing it, not because we seek their votes, but because it is right. If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich.
To our sister republics south of our border, we offer a special pledge--to convert our good words into good deeds--in a new alliance for progress--to assist free men and free governments in casting off the chains of poverty. But this peaceful revolution of hope cannot become the prey of hostile powers. Let all our neighbors know that we shall join with them to oppose aggression or subversion anywhere in the Americas. And let every other power know that this Hemisphere intends to remain the master of its own house. To that world assembly of sovereign states, the United Nations, our last best hope in an age where the instruments of war have far outpaced the instruments of peace, we renew our pledge of support--to prevent it from becoming merely a forum for invective--to strengthen its shield of the new and the weak--and to enlarge the area in which its writ may run.
Finally, to those nations who would make themselves our adversary, we offer not a pledge but a request: that both sides begin anew the quest for peace, before the dark powers of destruction unleashed by science engulf all humanity in planned or accidental self-destruction.
We dare not tempt them with weakness. For only when our arms are sufficient beyond doubt can we be certain beyond doubt that they will never be employed. But neither can two great and powerful groups of nations take comfort from our present course--both sides overburdened by the cost of modern weapons, both rightly alarmed by the steady spread of the deadly atom, yet both racing to alter that uncertain balance of terror that stays the hand of mankind's final war. So let us begin anew--remembering on both sides that civility is not a sign of weakness, and sincerity is always subject to proof. Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate.
Let both sides explore what problems unite us instead of belaboring those problems which divide us. Let both sides, for the first time, formulate serious and precise proposals for the inspection and control of arms--and bring the absolute power to destroy other nations under the absolute control of all nations. Let both sides seek to invoke the wonders of science instead of its terrors. Together let us explore the stars, conquer the deserts, eradicate disease, tap the ocean depths and encourage the arts and commerce. Let both sides unite to heed in all corners of the earth the command of Isaiah--to "undo the heavy burdens . . . (and) let the oppressed go free."
And if a beachhead of cooperation may push back the jungle of suspicion, let both sides join in creating a new endeavor, not a new balance of power, but a new world of law, where the strong are just and the weak secure and the peace preserved. All this will not be finished in the first one hundred days. Nor will it be finished in the first one thousand days, nor in the life of this Administration, nor even perhaps in our lifetime on this planet. But let us begin.
In your hands, my fellow citizens, more than mine, will rest the final success or failure of our course. Since this country was founded, each generation of Americans has been summoned to give testimony to its national loyalty. The graves of young Americans who answered the call to service surround the globe. Now the trumpet summons us again--not as a call to bear arms, though arms we need--not as a call to battle, though embattled we are-- but a call to bear the burden of a long twilight struggle, year in and year out, "rejoicing in hope, patient in tribulation"--a struggle against the common enemies of man: tyranny, poverty, disease and war itself. Can we forge against these enemies a grand and global alliance, North and South, East and West, that can assure a more fruitful life for all mankind? Will you join in that historic effort?
In the long history of the world, only a few generations have been granted the role of defending freedom in its hour of maximum danger. I do not shrink from this responsibility--I welcome it. I do not believe that any of us would exchange places with any other people or any other generation. The energy, the faith, the devotion which we bring to this endeavor will light our country and all who serve it--and the glow from that fire can truly light the world.
And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you--ask what you can do for your country. My fellow citizens of the world: ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man. Finally, whether you are citizens of America or citizens of the world, ask of us here the same high standards of strength and sacrifice which we ask of you. With a good conscience our only sure reward, with history the final judge of our deeds, let us go forth to lead the land we love, asking His blessing and His help, but knowing that here on earth God's work must truly be our own.



Theodore H. White, The Making of the President, 1960 (Buccaneer Books, 1999)

Alan Schroeder, Presidential Debates (Columbia Univ. Press, 2000)

James E. Campbell, The American Campaign: U.S. Presidential Campaigns and the National Vote (Texas A&M University Press, 2000)

Marion R. Just (Editor), Ann N. Crigler, Dean E. Alger, Timothy Cook, Crosstalk: Citizens, Candidates, and the Media in a Presidential Campaign (American Politics and Political Economy) (University of Chicago Press 1996)

Kathleen Hall Jamieson, Packaging the Presidency: A History and Criticism of Presidential Campaign Advertising (Oxford Univ. Press, 1996)

David Heath, Elections in the United States (American Civics) (Capstone Press, 1999)

Miles Harvey, Presidential Elections (Cornerstones of Freedom Series) (Children's Press, 1996)

Thomas R. Raber, Election Night (Politics in the United States Series) (Lerner Publications Company, 1988)