Fifty Years Ago: Kennedy vs. Nixon on TV

During the U.S. presidential election of 1960, Democrat John F. Kennedy and Republican Richard Nixon squared off on September 26th in the country’s first ever televised presidential debates. The impact of the Kennedy-Nixon debates on the election’s outcome is still debated, but what is certain is that these events fifty years ago began a new era of increased attention to political candidates’ public image and to taking strategic advantage of the medium of television to influence elections.

The debates put the two vastly different candidates on display. Kennedy was younger, and somewhat less well known and experienced than Nixon. A Roman Catholic, Kennedy was thought to be at a disadvantage because of his religion. Nixon, who was serving his second term as Dwight Eisenhower’s vice president, was leading in the polls by a slim margin at the time of the debates. In fact, his campaign staff were shocked that he agreed to face Kennedy in such a public forum. When American voters turned out in record numbers in November, Kennedy narrowly won the closest-ever election in terms of popular vote. A “Superbowl-sized” audience watched the debates, and 6 percent of voters said the event was the decisive factor in their choice.

Since 1976, American politics have been shaped by such debates, which allow candidates to distinguish themselves as witty or sharp, score rhetorical points, and capitalize when their opponents misspeak – while at the same time they risk appearing clueless, humorless, or just verbally clumsy. The 1960 debates were the first of their kind, though it wasn’t until 1976 that the next such debates would take place. Since the 1988 election, each presidential campaign’s debates have been sponsored and produced by the Commission on Presidential Debates.

Related Links

  • The Great Debates’s Web site on the Kennedy-Nixon debates features actual footage and additional videos for context, as well as links to profiles of presidents and coverage of presidential elections.
    (Source:; accessed September 30, 2010)
  • The Great Debate and Beyond: The History of Televised Presidential Debates
    This Web site focuses not only on the Kennedy-Nixon debates in 1960 but on many of the debates since, especially the years 1976–2000; explores the relationship of TV to political processes through essays, interviews, and statistics.
    (Source: MBC; accessed September 30, 2010)
  • Half-Century Has Passed since Kennedy-Nixon Debates
    This article about the Kennedy-Nixon debates debunks some of the popular beliefs about the events.
    (Source: The News-Gazette [East Central IL], September 19, 2010)


  1. caroline says:

    how could they let this happen

  2. BIG BAD WOLF says:

    I know right that makes me really mad. ;(