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
whether the debates made a difference in an election that sent Kennedy to the White House by a margin less than two-tenths of a percentage point.
A Gallup Poll analysis, published in 2008, noted that what had been a dead heat between Kennedy and Nixon before the first debate shifted to a 4-point edge for Kennedy going into the fourth debate. The analysis contended that while "it is clear the debates didn't produce a major shift in the structure of the election … this debate-period boost in [Kennedy’s support] could very well have accounted for the outcome."
Rules of the Game
Today it's hard to imagine presidential campaign seasons without televised debates. But after 1960, they weren't repeated until 1976.
Given Nixon's experience, it was hardly surprising that he declined his opponents' challenges to debate when he successfully sought the presidency in 1968 and 1972. Perhaps making the gamesmanship moot, Congress, which had facilitated the 1960 debates by suspending the FCC’s so-called equal time rule to exclude third party candidates, failed to take such action in the next three presidential contests.
Following a reinterpretation of the equal time rule by the FCC, televised debates resumed in 1976.
They have had an impact on the public's perception of candidates, perhaps most notably in 2000, when Vice President Al Gore slipped in the polls after letting out audible sighs in reaction to comments by his Republican opponent, Texas Gov. George W. Bush, in their first debate.
But television is primarily a visual medium, "so candidates have learned to be very careful about the non-verbal aspects of communications. Often those are the parts most remembered by viewers," noted West, a former Brown University political science professor. Today's candidates are unlikely to repeat George H.W. Bush's habit of checking his watch during a 1992 town hall-style debate with Bill Clinton and Ross Perot.
In his landmark work, The Making of the President 1960, author Theodore H. White saw the debates as utilizing technology to democratize ancient tradition.
"What [the debates] did best was to give the voters of a great democracy a living portrait of two men under stress and let the voters decide, by instinct and emotion, which style and pattern of behavior under stress they preferred in their leader," White wrote.
"The political roots of this tribal sense of the whole go back as far as the Roman Senate. ... This sense of personal choice of leader has been missing for centuries from modern civilization. … What the TV debates did was to generalize this tribal sense of participation, this emotional judgment of the leader, from the few to the multitude."
Having rewritten the political playbook, technology didn't interfere with a similar magnitude until 2008, when, according to the Pew Research Center, 74 percent of Internet users went online to participate or receive their news about the presidential campaign.
Louis Peck is a veteran Washington reporter and editor who has covered several presidential campaigns and debates.