1960-1976: The Gap Years

By Andrea Stone

 

 

 

The first televised presidential debates in 1960 between Democrat John F. Kennedy and Republican Richard Nixon would be the last until 1976.  

The triumph of image over substance back then convinced President Lyndon Johnson, who in 1964 was seeking to be elected in his own right after Kennedy's assassination, that he should avoid giving a platform to his rival, Republican Sen. Barry Goldwater of Arizona.[1] Besides, as the clear frontrunner, Johnson had little to gain in a debate. 

In 1968, Nixon, who famously lost the 1960 debates to Kennedy, had no incentive to repeat the experience against Democratic Vice President Hubert Humphrey. He felt the same way in 1972 when, as the incumbent president, he refused to debate Democratic Sen. George McGovern of South Dakota.

Both Johnson and Nixon publicly blamed the Federal Communications Commission’s equal-time rules for their decisions to forgo debates. The rule would have required all third-party candidates, even those on the fringe, to share the stage with them. 

That remained the stumbling block until September 1975, when the FCC decided that the equal-time rules stifled broadcast coverage of campaigns. It voted to exempt candidate debates from the rule as long as they were sponsored by an independent group. In 1976, the nonpartisan League of Women Voters said it would put on the debates and the country once more got to see the two major contenders head-to-head.[2]

By then, Republican President Gerald Ford hoped debating his opponent, Democratic Gov. Jimmy Carter of Georgia, would improve his lagging poll numbers. While Ford would lose the 1976 election, his decision to resume televised debates marked the beginning of a quadrennial tradition that continues to this day. 

 

[1] “Saturday Night Live and the 1976 Presidential Election: A New Voice Enters Campaign Politics” - William Horner and M. Heather Carver. McFarland & Company Inc. 2018. P. 114

[2] Ibid, p. 115

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