26 September 1960, 70 million U.S. viewers tuned in to watch Senator
John Kennedy of Massachusetts and Vice President Richard Nixon in
the first-ever televised presidential debate. It was the first of
four televised "Great Debates" between Kennedy and Nixon. The first
debate centered on domestic issues. The high point of the second
debate, on 7 October, was disagreement over U.S. involvement in
two small islands off the coast of China, and on 13 October, Nixon
and Kennedy continued this dispute. On 21 October, the final debate,
the candidates focused on American relations with Cuba.
Great Debates marked television's grand entrance into presidential
politics. They afforded the first real opportunity for voters to
see their candidates in competition, and the visual contrast was
dramatic. In August, Nixon had seriously injured his knee and spent
two weeks in the hospital. By the time of the first debate he was
still twenty pounds underweight, his pallor still poor. He arrived
at the debate in an ill-fitting shirt, and refused make-up to improve
his color and lighten his perpetual "5:00 o'clock shadow." Kennedy,
by contrast, had spent early September campaigning in California.
He was tan and confident and well-rested. "I had never seen him
looking so fit," Nixon later wrote.
In substance, the candidates were much more evenly matched. Indeed,
those who heard the first debate on the radio pronounced Nixon the
winner. But the 70 million who watched television saw a candidate
still sickly and obviously discomforted by Kennedy's smooth delivery
and charisma. Those television viewers focused on what they saw,
not what they heard. Studies of the audience indicated that, among
television viewers, Kennedy was perceived the winner of the first
debate by a very large margin.
televised Great Debates had a significant impact on voters in 1960,
on national elections since, and, indeed, on our concerns for democracy
itself. The impact on the election of 1960 was significant, albeit
subtle. Commentators broadly agree that the first debate accelerated
Democratic support for Kennedy. In hindsight, however, it seems
the debates were not, as once thought, the turning-point in the
election. Rather than encouraging viewers to change their vote,
the debates appear to have simply solidified prior allegiances.
In short, many would argue that Kennedy would have won the election
with or without the Great Debates.
voters in 1960 did vote with the Great Debates in mind. At election
time, more than half of all voters reported that the Great Debates
had influenced their opinion; 6% reported that their vote was the
result of the debates alone. Thus, regardless of whether the debates
changed the election result, voters pointed to the debates as a
significant reason for electing Kennedy.
Great Debates had a significant impact beyond the election of 1960,
as well. They served as precedent around the world: Soon after the
debates, Germany, Sweden, Finland, Italy, and Japan established
debates between contenders to national office. Moreover, the Great
Debates created a precedent in American presidential politics. Federal
laws requiring that all candidates receive equal air-time stymied
debates for the next three elections, as did Nixon's refusal to
debate in 1968 and 1972. Yet by 1976, the law and the candidates
had both changed, and ever since, presidential debates, in one form
or another, have been a fixture of U.S. presidential politics.
most important, the Great Debates forced citizens to rethink how
democracy would work in a television era. To what extent does television
change debate, indeed, change campaigning altogether? What is the
difference between a debate that "just happens" to be broadcast
and one specifically crafted for television? What is lost in the
latter? Do televised debates really help us to evaluate the relative
competencies of the candidates, to evaluate policy options, to increase
voter participation and intellectual engagement, to strengthen national
unity? Fundamentally, such events lead to worries that television
emphasizes the visual, when visual attributes seem not the best,
nor most reliable, indicators of a great leader. Yet other views
express confidence that televised presidential debates remain one
of the most effective means to operate a direct democracy. The issue
then becomes one of improved form rather than changed forum.
Nixon-Kennedy debates of 1960 brought these questions to the floor.
Perhaps as no other single event, the Great Debates forced us to
ponder the role of television in democratic life.
Erika Tyner Allen
Susan A., Michael Pfau, and Steven R Brydon. Televised Presidential
Debates: Advocacy in Contemporary America. New York: Praeger,
Kathleen Hall, and David S. Birdsell. Presidential Debates: The
Challenge of Creating An Informed Electorate. New York: Oxford
University Press, 1988.
Sidney. Televised Presidential Debates and Public Policy.
Hillsdale, New Jersey: Erlbaum, 1988.
_______________. The Great Debates: Background--Perspective --Effects.
Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1962.
Newton N., and Clifford M. Sloan. For Great Debates: A New Plan
for Future Presidential Debates. New York: Priority Press, 1987.
See also U.S.
Presidency and Television
Great Debate & Beyond: The History of Televised Presidential