The Nixon-Kennedy Debates
Most historians believe the 1960 election turned on the first televised Great Debate between Kennedy and Nixon.
If you’re tired of the Republican Debate-o-the-Day (and who isn’t?), you can blame the incredible impact of the 1960 debates between John Kennedy and Richard Nixon. It was a time when most American families finally owned a television (probably black and white), and the medium had a huge effect on one of the closest elections in U.S. history.
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The first-ever debate televised occurred on Sept. 26, 1960. And something amazing happened. By all accounts, the two candidates were very evenly matched. Those who heard the debate on the radio even considered Nixon the winner. But Nixon has been hospitalized for two weeks with a serious knee injury, and he showed up pale, wearing a shirt that no longer fit, and with his 5 o’clock shadow. He refused make-up to give himself some color. Kennedy, by contrast, had been campaigning in the California sun. He appeared tan and fit, and the television audience plainly saw the difference – and considered Kennedy the winner by a wide margin.
Nixon learned from this initial misstep, and came in fit and accepted makeup for the final three debates. But it was too late, because a significantly smaller audience watched these than had seen the first. The election was too close to call for the entire election night, with Nixon finally conceding defeat the following afternoon. In hindsight, though, he considered defeat when he appeared at the first “Great Debate” not ready for the influential new medium of television.
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