Richard Nixon (left) and John F. Kennedy debate in 1960
The presidential election of 1960 had some interesting “firsts”. It was the first election that involved all 50 states as Hawaii and Alaska had joined the list in 1959. It also was first to have two sitting senators on the same ticket (Democrats John Kennedy-Lyndon Johnson) while Kennedy became the first Catholic to be elected to the presidency.
Another “first” that had an influence on the election was the four Nixon-Kennedy televised debates.
Pre-election debates had not been that big a deal other than the Lincoln-Douglas debates in 1858 in Illinois which drew large crowds even though the election was not even decided by popular vote. Later, FDR turned down an invitation to debate with Wendell Wilkie in 1940 dismissing it as a “media stunt”.
However, by 1960 there were over 52 million television sets in the United States making TV an obvious and important outlet for political debates. Republicans and Democrats recognized this so four debates were arranged for the fall of 1960 between Senator Kennedy and Republican Vice President/candidate Richard Nixon.
The first debate was about domestic issues and drew 70 million viewers along with a smaller audience that listened on the radio.
Radio listeners picked Nixon as the winner but the much larger TV audience picked Kennedy. As far as substance, the candidates were considered about even. However, this was an example of how much television counted as a cosmetic business even 50 years ago when most viewers were watching black and white sets with poor reception and smaller screens. The TV audience got to hear AND see the candidates which gave Kennedy a large advantage.
Nixon either let his ego get in the way of common sense or else he dismissed the debate as meaningless. He had injured his knee a month earlier and had spent a couple weeks in the hospital for treatment. When he arrived for the debate he was emaciated looking, had ill fitting clothes, and refused makeup for his ever present five o’clock shadow.
Conversely, Kennedy, who was five years younger than Nixon, showed up tanned, healthy, rested, and ready for action. When the debate began, Kennedy exhibited charisma, confidence, and a smooth delivery while Nixon appeared sickly and intimidated. Needless to say, Kennedy won the night on TV where it counted the most and that carried over to the other debates.
There are those who think that Kennedy would have won the presidency anyway although 6% of voters said the debates were a factor in their candidate choice. As it turned out the election was a squeaker with Kennedy winning 303 electoral votes to Nixon’s 219. Kennedy won the popular vote by only 112,827 votes but lost 26 states.
Perhaps Nixon should have reconsidered using makeup for that first debate after all.
(Thanks to Erika Tyner Allen)