In the first ever televised presidential debate in American history, John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon faced off for an hour on CBS in front of 70 million viewers. The debate was the first of four powerful confrontations between the two candidates. So impactful were the debates between Kennedy and Nixon, that they left a void of volunteers willing to take on political opponents in front of the camera. Following the four-part series between Kennedy and Nixon, there wouldn't be another televised presidential debate until Gerald Ford agreed to debate Jimmy Carter in 1976, a full sixteen years later. Today, we examine the second round of the debate series on October 7th 1960. Click here for the full transcript. Click here to view the debate.
Prior to the debate, Kennedy was considered a longshot for the presidency. His youthfulness and religious affiliation (Catholicism) made him an unpopular candidate. But when the cameras were on, so was Kennedy. Voters were impressed by Kennedy's demeanor; he was calm, cool, collected, and most importantly, he was prepared. Kennedy rehearsed and studied extensively for the debates. His speech writer, Ted Sorensen, even recalled finding Kennedy napping amidst a pile of his notecards on the afternoon of the first debate. Read more from Sorenson's recollection of the Great Debates here in his 2010 op-ed for the New York Times.
By contrast, Nixon did not work with a debate coach prior to taking the stage on September 26th, 1960. He was the sitting vice-president and perhaps thought his experience in office would overwhelm his opponent. In fact, Nixon had recently undergone surgery and appeared weak, pale, and thin on television. So uninspiring was the visage of the veep that some commentators questioned whether the debate would have been a draw if it had aired exclusively over the radio. But Nixon proved that his first performance was the result of his lax preparations. Nixon studied and was even rumored to have taken up a diet of milkshakes to improve his gaunt appearance. The following debate was more even-handed and displayed a depth of knowledge on the part of both candidates. Together, the four Kennedy/Nixon debates were dubbed The Great Debates of 1960.
History.com examines some of the key arguments of the second debate (http://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/kennedy-and-nixon-debate-cold-war-foreign-policy):
"In the second of four televised debates, Democratic presidential nominee John F. Kennedy and Vice President Richard Nixon turn their attention to foreign policy issues. Three Cold War episodes, in particular, engendered spirited confrontations between Kennedy and Nixon. The first involved Cuba, which had recently come under the control of Fidel Castro. Nixon argued that the island was not “lost” to the United States, and that the course of action followed by the Eisenhower administration had been the best one to allow the Cuban people to “realize their aspirations of progress through freedom.” Kennedy fired back that it was clear that Castro was a communist, and that the Republican administration failed to use U.S. resources effectively to prevent his rise to power. He concluded that, “Today Cuba is lost for freedom.”
The second point of contention revolved around the downing of an American U-2 spy plane over the Soviet Union and the subsequent canceling of the U.S.-Soviet summit set for May 1960. Kennedy argued that the United States was “not in accordance with international law” in the case, and should have expressed its regrets to the Soviet Union in an attempt to keep the summit on track. Nixon fired back that Kennedy was simply wrong: the Soviets never really wanted the summit to take place and simply used the incident as an excuse.
The two candidates continued their discussions of foreign policy in the next two debates, but the lines had clearly been drawn. Kennedy’s strategy was to paint the Republican administration in which Nixon served as timid, indecisive, and given to poor strategizing in terms of the Cold War. Nixon, on the other hand, wanted to portray Kennedy as naive and much too willing to compromise with the Soviets and communist Chinese. Whether the debates really changed any voters’ minds is uncertain. While many speech experts argue that Nixon really won the debates, media analysts claim that Kennedy’s telegenic presence swayed enough voters for him to win the extremely close 1960 election."