1960: TV’s First Presidential Debate: Nixon vs. Kennedy
On this day in 1960, an estimated 70 million Americans tuned in to watch Senator John F. Kennedy and Vice President Richard M. Nixon take part in the first-ever televised presidential debate. It was the first of four “Great Debates” between the two candidates, and demonstrated that television had the potential to be more than a vehicle for entertainment.
“It was the TV more than anything else that turned the tide,” Kennedy famously said after his election.
As hard as it is to imagine now, at the time the candidates and their campaign teams had no idea how powerful the medium would prove to be. Nixon, weary from his promise to visit all 50 states before the election and recovering from a knee infection that required hospitalization, looked weak and ill next to the tan, well-rested Kennedy. (Nixon’s refusal of stage make-up didn’t help.)
A political underdog when the debate began, Kennedy’s on-screen confidence captured the nation’s attention. The televised debates continued on Oct. 7, 13 and 21, and Nixon did a much better job the second, third and fourth time around. But television’s first impressions ultimately proved fateful for both candidates.