The game was high-stakes politics. A then-record audience estimated as high as 80 million gathered around TV sets 50 years ago — Sept. 26, 1960 — to watch a presidential debate between Richard M. Nixon and John F. Kennedy. According to the Arbitron ratings, two-thirds of households with sets tuned in to watch the Republican vice president and the Democratic U.S. senator from Massachusetts have at it, the first such encounter ever televised.
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The legacy of the televised presidential debate — and three more that followed that season — has been sharply debated for half a century.
On one hand, "the great debates," as they were called, brought the candidates into voters' living rooms, allowing them to see, hear and judge prospective presidents in a way never before possible, Newton Minow, a Kennedy campaign staffer who would become Federal Communications Commission chairman, wrote many years later.
"At the same time, the experience stoked the public appetite for and the modern campaign’s emphasis on the image and the sound bite," according to Minow.
In any case, the debates established television as a central player in presidential politics. "Prior to that time, print journalism dominated presidential campaigns. … This represented a major turning point in what later became known as the Television Era," says Darrell West, vice president and director of governance studies at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C.
Style Over Substance?
Not in dispute is how the first Kennedy-Nixon debate turned on matters of style and perception far more than substance. Arriving from the West Coast for the debate in Chicago, Kennedy sported a tan and spent the day resting and rehearsing questions with his staff. Nixon, on the other hand, had recently emerged from a stay in the hospital because of a knee infection, and had lost about 20 pounds. Rather than resting, he spent part of the day of the debate speaking to a union convention.
On TV that night, Nixon "looked green, sallow [and] needed a shave," Don Hewitt, the debate’s executive producer and later executive producer of CBS’ 60 Minutes, recalled in a 1977 interview, while Kennedy resembled "a young Lochinvar," poet Sir Walter Scott's gallant knight.
Influence at the Ballot Box
While its methodology has been challenged in recent years, a much-cited survey after the first Kennedy-Nixon debate found that the radio audience regarded Nixon as the winner, while the TV audience gave the edge to Kennedy by a wide margin. A question remains