The First Kennedy-Nixon Debate

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• The Debate
Text of the Debate

Presidential campaigns (and campaigns for many other offices) now have as part of the natural order of things a televised debate between the major candidates. This is a standard thing now. Television is used to report news on a candidate and to advertise the views of a candidate.

But television was fairly new to the presidential process in 1960, the year of the first televised presidential debate.

On September 26, the first debate between then-Vice President Richard Nixon and then-Sen. John Kennedy took place.

Nixon, the Republican candidate, had served for eight years as second-in-command to President Dwight D. Eisenhower. He knew the way of the world, and he was thought to be a good public speaker. Kennedy, the Democratic candidate, was a relative newcomer to the political scene, having served as a Senator from Massachusetts.

Although most people who listened to the debate on radio thought that Nixon had "won" the debate, the great majority of people who tuned in to watch the debate on TV gave the "win" to Kennedy, because he appeared more boyish and intelligent. This was the first instance of style playing a major part in helping people make up their minds about who to elect president. Kennedy was definitely more charismatic, and it showed—on television and on the campaign trail.

Nixon is thought to have won the other three presidential debates, but political historians tell us that the damage was done. That first impression that many Americans had turned into a lasting impression. Kennedy won the election two months later.

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Social Studies for Kids
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David White