Great Debates in American History: Kennedy vs. Nixon, September 26th 1960 (Round 1)

by The New York City Urban Debate League | Sep 26, 2017 9:00:00 AM |

great debates, kennedy, nixon


Today on September 26 is the 56th anniversary of a milestone in American politics: the 1960 John F. Kennedy-Richard M. Nixon nationally televised presidential campaign debates. This was the first of four debates leading up the election, which Kennedy narrowly won.  Watch the first installment here from the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library.


Kennedy’s victory may have been one of style over substance because each candidate was equally matched and knowledgeable on the issues. In substance, the issues centered on the challenges the U.S. faced in an ongoing Cold War with the Soviet Union. The following quotes from the transcript of the first debate set the tone of where the candidates’ views only slightly differed:


Kennedy: The kind of country we have here, the kind of society we have, the kind of strength we build in the United States will be the defense of freedom. If we do well here, if we meet our obligations, if we're moving ahead, then I think freedom will be secure around the world. If we fail, then freedom fails.


Nixon: The things that Senator Kennedy has said many of us can agree with…Where, then, do we disagree? I think we disagree on the implication of his remarks tonight and on the statements that he has made on many occasions during his campaign to the effect that the United States has been standing still.


So, the question was whether two terms of a Republican Eisenhower administration entitled the Republican Vice President to be a surrogate for a third term. Nixon claimed he was “the one” to carry on, but Kennedy got some help from one of the moderators, Sander Vanocur with this question:


“Now, in his news conference on August twenty-fourth, President Eisenhower was asked to give one example of a major idea of yours that he adopted. His reply was, and I'm quoting; ‘If you give me a week I might think of one. I don't remember.’" 


Nixon recovered somewhat by claiming that the president’s remark was facetious. Kennedy took the high road and covered his own lack of executive experience with a comparison between him and the untested Abraham Lincoln (notably, a Republican.)


So, who won the debate? Those who listened to both candidates on the radio said it was either a draw, or gave a slight edge to the well-prepared and articulate Kennedy. However, those who viewed the black and white television forecast claimed that Kennedy trounced Nixon. Kennedy, dressed in a dark suit and sporting a tan, was rested, confident and telegenic.


Nixon, who wore a dull gray suit, looked pale and in need of a shave, and came across as shifty, as he gazed at the questioners, rather than at the camera. Nixon was also suffering from a painful knee injury and sweated profusely through the TV makeup.


So, in essence, this debate added a new element to American politics—TV entertainment. In 1960 television was dominated by comedy, adult westerns, and musical variety. The pre-cable news was relegated to a minor role, never generating the income of, say, the top-rated Andy Griffith, show. The debates changed all that.


However, in the case of this first debate, CBS preempted that popular sitcom, as an estimated 40 percent of the American public tuned in to a process that would govern future presidential elections and require debating skills far beyond just studying up on the issues and doing by-rote recitation of points and counterpoints. 


Check out the televised debate: Click here to view the video of the debate!


Students contemplating joining their school's debate team should take a lesson from Nixon vs. Kennedy: work on presentation skills, and incorporate an aura of confidence and relaxation. Of course, there is no substitute for preparation, which, not surprisingly promotes the aforementioned aura.


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