Every four years, the citizens of the United States vote to elect a new president. Before voting on the first Tuesday in November, Americans can see the two presidential candidates face off four times, between September and October, in a presidential debate. The debates show whether or not the candidate can handle the pressures of managing the country. Thanks to television, the country can see these debates in real time. However, there was a time when presidential debates were not televised. At first, presidential debates were held behind closed doors. The only way Americans could connect with the debates was to attend the event in person or listen to it on the radio. If they couldn’t attend or listen to the proceedings, Americans wouldn’t learn the results until the next day, usually through the newspaper or conversation at work. Then in 1927, television was invented and 33 years later it would play a huge role in presidential debates.
On Monday, September 26, 1960, the race for the White House and the history of television changed forever when 70 million people tuned in to see Massachusetts Senator John F. Kennedy and Vice President Richard Nixon s face off at the WBBM studio in Chicago. For the first time, a presidential debate would be broadcast to a national audience on television. Before the debate, Kennedy was clearly the favorite to win the presidential election and had a 48% lead over his opponent. However, Nixon trailed Kennedy by 43% and a strong performance in debate would improve his chances in the election. Plus, Nixon used to be in front of the camera. This includes giving his famous “Checkers” speech in 1952 before obtaining the post of vice president under Dwight Eisenhower, who was president of the United States at the time of the debate. Unfortunately, making a speech on television would be different from having a debate.
Kennedy had no television experience, however, he showed up for the calm and collected debate. It showed when Kennedy gave his opening statement. He addressed the issues that concerned him and the United States; race, social security, economics and international relations were among the issues he addressed. He also answered correspondents’ questions and responded with in-depth explanations whenever Nixon questioned him without hesitation. Best of all, Kennedy wore a dark blue suit, which stood out on TV and made her look crisp and fresh.
While Kennedy seemed ready for the moment, the same couldn’t be said for Nixon. He showed up to the first debate wearing a gray suit, which blended into the gray background of the black-and-white TV screen, and looked nervous whenever he spoke to the camera. This was evident when it was Nixon’s turn to make his opening statement. Instead of addressing some of the issues concerning the country, Nixon began reciting some of the same material used in the Kennedy Declaration and comparing the improvements made by the Truman administration and the Eisenhower administration. When it came to answering questions from correspondents or Kennedy, Nixon stammered or showed little confidence in giving an explanation. Worse yet, Nixon had not recovered from a knee injury he sustained on his campaign trip to Greensboro, NC a month earlier, and had to spend three weeks in hospital. . It was obvious that Nixon wasn’t 100% every time he wiped the sweat from his mouth in front of the camera.
While Nixon improved his appearance and speech over the next three debates, even winning two of the three, it was the appearance and demeanor of the two candidates in the first debate that stood out in the audience. Kennedy’s appearance showed that he was ready to become President of the United States, while Nixon’s appearance showed that he was not (yet) ready to rule the country. “The first debate indicated that not only John Kennedy could stand up to Nixon,” said Robert F. Kennedy. He could improve it and it destroyed Mr. Nixon’s entire campaign base overnight.
Two months later, on Tuesday, November 8, 1960, the Americans voted. While not a landslide victory, with Kennedy receiving 303 votes to Nixon’s 219, at the end of the vote Kennedy was elected the 44th President of the United States. His performance in the first televised presidential debate helped convince voters that he was ready to lead the country.