OTD in History… September 26, 1960, the Great Debate between Kennedy and Nixon changes presidential campaigning

By Bonnie K. Goodman, BA, MLIS

On this day in history, September 26, 1960, Democratic Presidential nominee John F. Kennedy and Republican Presidential nominee Richard Nixon met for the first of four nationally televised presidential debates, the first presidential campaign debates in American history. The televised debates brought in a new era of presidential campaigning focusing more on image than substance for the nominees. The 1960 debate was the first great debate since Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas battled it out over a hundred years before in 1858 for the Senate seat from Illinois in the middle of the debate over slavery divided the nation.

Although the two nominees were young, Kennedy was 43, Nixon was 47 but Senator Kennedy of Massachusetts had the image advantage over Nixon, who was Vice President under Dwight Eisenhower. Kennedy appeared young and evanescent compared to Nixon, who looked tired and haggard. The major issue of the campaign had been the level of political experience between the two nominees, with two-term Vice President Nixon charging Kennedy of being the inexperienced one in domestic and foreign policy. The debates changed the public perception; Kennedy’s masterful use of the medium made him the clear winner of the first debate although radio listeners deemed Nixon the winner (although they were mostly rural voters and Republicans), proving the changing power television would bring to the future campaigns.

Source: JFK Library

The nominees agreed to four one-hour televised presidential debates, allowing the public to see the candidates as never before, it was first such confrontation between presidential nominees in history. The first debate on September 26, 1960, was held in Chicago. The second debate on October 7, 1960, was held in Washington, DC. The third debate on October 13, 1960, had the candidates broadcasting from New York and Los Angeles seen via a split screen. The fourth and final debate on October 21, 1960, was held in New York. Although Nixon looked better in the remaining debates, the first debate had the greatest impact on the campaign. Kennedy won the first debate; Nixon won the second and third debates; in the fourth, both candidates performed their strongest and it was considered a tie. Kennedy appeared just as confident and experienced equally to Vice President Nixon.

Nixon campaigned extensively up to a few hours before the first debate telecast, and still had not fully recovered from a two-week stay in the hospital for a knee infection and just overcame the flu. Nixon looked too thin in his rumpled grey suit and pale with his “5 o’clock shadow” stumble showing because he refused a makeup artist, just used hastily applied pancake makeup. Nixon literally blended into the grey background in the black and white medium. Kennedy, in contrast, took the afternoon off from campaigning prior to the debate, appeared more rested, tanned in a dark fitted suit that made him stand out from the background. Kennedy spoke to the audience while Nixon addressed his opponent. Kennedy appeared as the statesman and Nixon trying to be less “combative” seemed a shadow of the promising young politician, who mastered television with the Checkers Speech just eight years earlier in 1952.

The first debate was on domestic policy, whereas Nixon excelled in foreign affairs, which did not help him either. The difference in appearances in the candidates affected the public’s perception. Those who watched the debate, named Kennedy the winner, the radio audience albeit smaller named Nixon the winner; Nixon abided the rules of television for the next debates, he gained weight via a milkshake diet, rested, wore make-up, and the debates focused on foreign policy, he tried to rehabilitee his persona away from “Tricky Dick.” Both candidates attempted to appear likable to the public and refrained personal attacks, keeping the debates cordial, to the point that image trumped politics. Only a fraction of the number of viewers watched the remaining debates. Over 70 million Americans viewed the first debate, but a combined 50 million watched the remaining three debates. The debates helped Kennedy more from Nixon, because of his initial impression to the public.

In the 1960 campaign, television was used on mass to appeal to voters Kennedy made 200 commercials, which utilized his young wife Jackie Kennedy and had celebrity endorsements. Nixon, however, did not take advantage in the same way, instead of focusing on personality as Kennedy was, Nixon chose to dwell on his strong point his experience and policy knowledge, his commercials were more formal. The Great Debates only emphasized the impact the new medium would have on politics. With 88 percent of American homes owning a television set in 1960, it became one of the easiest ways to reach the public in an unprecedented way. Historian Kathryn Cramer Brownell recalls, “As commentators stated at the time, the Kennedy-Nixon debates did not create a tradition of highly informative debate in American politics, but simply another venue for candidates to present themselves to the public as best they can and repeat clichéd campaign statements without making any embarrassing comments.”

On Election Day, the two candidates were in a virtual tie, with Kennedy coming out the victor over Nixon by a slim margin less than a percentage point 49.7 percent to 49.5 percent in the popular vote. Although there were, other factors and issues that played a part in the campaign, Kennedy’s performance in that first memorable debate pushed him over the top in the election and was the turning point in the campaign, it was a game changer and as Time Magazine noted “Many say Kennedy won the election that night.” Chris Matthews writing his book, Kennedy & Nixon, The Rivalry that Shaped Postwar America, claims the debates turned the tables from Nixon being the one to beat to Kennedy taking the lead, Matthews observes, “When Americans think of John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon, they recall their close, bitter 1960 fight for the presidency. They picture them in their “Great Debate,” the debonair Kennedy outshining an awkward Nixon.” (Matthews, 14)

The Great Debate, changed politics and presidential campaigning. Bruce DuMont, the president of the Museum of Broadcast Communications expressed, “I don’t think it’s overstating the fact that, on that date, politics and television changed forever. After that debate, it was not just what you said in a campaign that was important, but how you looked saying it.” Historian Alan Schroeder, a professor at Northeastern University, and author of Presidential Debates: Forty Years of High-Risk TV spoke of the debates’ impact to TIME Magazine on the 50th anniversary in an article entitled, “How the Nixon-Kennedy Debate Changed the World.” Schroeder indicated, “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.”

However, as historian Christopher McKnight Nichols notes in his article, “Substance, style, and myth in the Kennedy-Nixon debates” it was not just appearance but also the combination of appearance and substance that helped Kennedy win. Nichols writes, “A blended recognition of the intertwined role of — and recognition of the limits of — substance as well as style helps us to better see what made the charismatic, fresh Kennedy such a revelation in 1960 but also reveals why Nixon continued to poll so strongly as well.”

Television was at the center of the political change. A 1979 task force report entitled, “With the Nation Watching,” pointed out, “The Nixon-Kennedy debates made televised encounters between candidates the hottest thing in electioneering since the campaign button.” Political scientist Larry Sabato at the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia noted, “Before the television debates most Americans didn’t even see the candidates — they read about them, they saw photos of them. This allowed the public to judge candidates on a completely different basis. When parties are considering their candidates they ask: Who would look better on TV? Who comes across better? Who can debate better? This has been taken into the calculus.”

Television matters so much that for the next 16 years the candidates avoided televised debate preferring controlled television messages. Kennedy’s successor Lyndon Johnson refused to debate his challenger Barry Goldwater in 1964 and Nixon the Republican nominee again in 1968 and in 1972 running for reelection did not want to take the risk again. In 1976, Republican Gerald Ford and Democrat Jimmy Carter restarted the debates in what would become a campaign tradition. Although in 1960 television was a novel new medium in presidential campaigning, it was just another way candidates adapted to the changing technology and innovations of the time; just as they had throughout American history. As television gave way to the internet and social media, candidates learned as Kennedy did to use the new media to their advantage and sell themselves to the American voter.


Boller, Paul F. Presidential Campaigns: From George Washington to George W. Bush. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2004.

Donaldson, Gary. The First Modern Campaign: Kennedy, Nixon, and the Election of 1960. Lanham, Md: Rowman & Littlefield, 2007.

Druckman, James N. “The Power of Television Images: The First Kennedy-Nixon Debate Revisited.” The Journal of Politics, vol. 65, no. 2, 2003, pp. 559–571. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/10.1111/1468-2508.t01-1-00015.

Matthews, Christopher. Kennedy & Nixon: The Rivalry That Shaped Postwar America. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1997.

Bonnie K. Goodman has a BA and MLIS from McGill University and has done graduate work in religion at Concordia University. She is a journalist, librarian, historian & editor, and a former Features Editor at the History News Network & reporter at Examiner.com where she covered politics, universities, religion, and news. She has a dozen years of experience in education & political journalism.