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By Andrea Stone

Political campaigns changed forever on the evening of September 26, 1960, when the lights flicked on in the studios of Chicago’s CBS affiliate WBBM as 70 million Americans settled in at home to watch the first televised presidential debate.


The one-hour faceoff, the most-watched of four debates that year, came at the height of the Cold War with the Soviet Union as jittery Americans worried about communism in close-by Cuba and being beaten into space with the launch of the Sputnik satellite.


With foreign policy high on voters’ minds, Republican Richard Nixon came into the debate with the edge after a high-profile career as an anti-communist crusader in Congress and eight years as Dwight D. Eisenhower’s vice president. His opponent, Democratic Sen. John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts, brought charisma and good looks but little experience or few accomplishments as a legislator. And he was Catholic, at that time a major stumbling block to the White House.


While there had been presidential primary debates aired on radio starting in 1948[1], this was the first debate in which voters could see as well as hear the candidates.


It had already started to change in 1952 when the Republican and Democratic conventions were televised for the first time. CBS news anchor Walter Cronkite, later known as “the most trusted man in America,” offered a class to politicians with tips on using makeup and avoiding looking shifty on TV. Kennedy, elected to the Senate that fall, attended. Vice President Nixon did not.[2]


Yet that fall Nixon gave his masterful Checkers Speech[3] in an address to 60 million Americans that not only saved his political career but marked the beginning of television’s power to influence. Nixon took to the airwaves to defuse a political money controversy that had Eisenhower considering dropping him from the ticket. Looking straight into the camera, he instantly changed public opinion when he insisted he would keep the gift of “a little cocker spaniel dog” that his daughter Tricia had named Checkers. 


Eight years later, though, his televised exchange with Kennedy sunk Nixon’s election prospects as image proved as, if not more, important than substance in presidential politics.


Kennedy looked young, tanned and relaxed. He had spent the previous weekend studying not only policy positions but camera angles and which suit color -- blue -- would reduce glare.


Nixon, recovering from the flu and a knee injury, appeared underweight, pale, tired and uncomfortable. His light gray suit blended with the set. Having refused makeup, Nixon had a visible five o’clock shadow as he wiped beads of sweat from his brow.[4]


The visually stark contrast convinced viewers that Kennedy won. Listeners on radio thought Nixon prevailed. Surveys later found that 4 million voters made up their minds based on the debates, with three of four chosing the Democrat.  


Kennedy would win in November by a razor-thin margin of 49.72% to Nixon’s 49.55%.


"It was TV more than anything else,” Kennedy later concluded, “ that turned the tide.”[5]

Clip from debate and supporting clips:

The third debate between the candidates, also broke ground as it was a virtual debate with both candidates in different studios on the two coasts. Years later, Frank Donatelli (1) President Ronald Reagan's assistant for political and intergovernmental affairs, who was also deputy chair of the Republican National Committee and therefore involved in debate preparations for Reagan in 1984 and U.S. Sen. Bob Dole in 1996. predicted that all of the debates in 2020 could be virtual. He recounts the ways the virtual Kennedy-Nixon debate in 1960 differed from the others, including lack of interruption from candidates and audience members, no opportunity for stage stunts, and an emphasis on the substance in candidates' remarks. 




Here is the full video of the third Nixon-Kennedy debate (2) 


[2] Original interview with presidential historian Douglas Brinkley 




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