It's now common knowledge that without the nation's first televised debate — fifty years ago Sunday — Kennedy would never have been president. But beyond securing his presidential career, the 60-minute duel between the handsome Irish-American senator and Vice President Richard Nixon fundamentally altered political campaigns, television media and America's political history.
- Kayla Webley
Time magazine, September 23, 2010
On September 26, 1960, the first televised presidential debate in American history took place. Tonight, 56 years later, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump will face-off in their first debate of the 2016 presidential campaign. As we all know, the world has changed enormously since then. For one thing, there were no 24 hour cable news networks back then. There was no CNN. There were no cell phones and there was no Internet. The U.S. was engaged in a fierce Cold War with the Soviet Union. Fidel Castro had taken power in Cuba, fuelling fears of the spread of Communism in the Western Hemisphere.
The September 26th debate was the first of four debates between the Democrat, Kennedy and the Republican, Nixon. It focused primarily on domestic policy. Here is some trivia about that historic debate.
* According to the website of the Museum of Broadcasting, 70 million U.S. viewers watched the first Kennedy-Nixon debate.
* On September 26, 1960, the CBS network preempted The Andy Griffith Show in order to present the first of the four televised debates.
* The debate was broadcast live (in black and white, of course) from a studio in Chicago, Illinois.
* The physical appearance of the two men differed. Kennedy appeared rested and fit. He looked calm, cool and collected on camera. Nixon, on the other hand, seemed nervous, tired and somewhat haggard. He sweated. He also had five o'clock shadow which gave him a sinister appearance, especially on a black and white television set. On the way to the studio, Nixon had exacerbated a sore knee by hitting it against a car door. He declined to wear makeup and one observer reported that he went "all white and pasty." In addition, he had recently suffered a bout of flu and had a low fever. After the debate, his mother, Hannah Milhous Nixon, called him and inquired about his health.
|Kennedy was relaxed while Nixon perspired.|
* It was obvious that John F. Kennedy was more comfortable on television than Richard Nixon. He was more attuned to television as a medium, Kennedy appealed directly to television viewers, while Nixon used a more traditional debating style and addressed Kennedy directly. After the event, radio listeners polled thought Nixon won the debate, while a majority of TV viewers believed Kennedy was the victor.
* Nixon fared better in the other debates. Unfortunately for him, however, the TV audience was smaller.
The Clinton-Trump debate tonight is expected to attract a record audience. However, it was that first Kennedy-Nixon debate that had such a tremendous impact. "It's one of those unusual points on the timeline of history where you can say things changed very dramatically - in this case, in a single night," Alan Schroeder, a media historian and author of the book Presidential Debates: Forty Years of High-Risk TV, was quoted by Time magazine (September 23, 2010) as saying of that groundbreaking 1960 debate,