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  First Kennedy-Nixon Debate
TitleFirst Kennedy-Nixon Debate
Start Date/TimeSeptember 26, 1960 08:30pm
End Date/TimeSeptember 26, 1960 09:30pm
Last ModifiedHomegrown Democrat - November 04, 2010 10:28pm

The Democratic and Republican candidates for President held four debates in 1960 that established the precedents for later, televised, debates.

The idea of holding a televised presidential debate was raised in the summer of 1960. VP Nixon, the Republican candidate, was asked in separate interviews on ABC and CBS on 7/24/1960 if he would agree to a televised debate. Nixon replied that he would debate if the questions showed substance. He stated that voters should make their decision based "on great issues rather than between two debaters or two personalities... I want their decision to be an intelligent one." [NYT 7/25/1960]

All three major television networks vied for the opportunity to carry the debate. NBC made the most formal proposal; its proposal and those of CBS and ABC were contingent upon congressional action to adjust Section 315 of the Federal Communications Act in order to deny third-party candidates a place in the debate. [NYT 7/29/1960] Mutual Broadcasting Service, the leading radio network of the time, offered air time on 8/5/1960 [NYT 8/6/1960]. The discrimination bill passed the U.S. Senate and U.S. House on voice votes, and Pres. Eisenhower signed it into law two days later [NYT 8/23, 25/1960].

While Sen. Kennedy simply agreed to debate, Nixon quickly began to lay down some ground rules. He insisted that neither candidate use notes during the debate, since voters should see what the candidates knew themselves, not what their advisors knew. [NYT 7/29/1960] Nixon then wanted the debates to be televised without commercial interruptions [NYT 8/1/1960].

Since Congress was in session until 9/1/1960, Kennedy and Nixon appointed teams to meet with the networks to iron out the details on 8/9/1960. Both campaigns opposed the original network idea of taping the debate to trim out unwanted pauses or misstatements [also to insert commercials]. As a result, the decision was made to hold what was called "'Live' radio and television debates" [NYT 8/10/1960].

First Debate Quick Facts
When: 8:30 to 9:30 Central Time, 9/26/1960
Where: produced by CBS in Chicago (WBBM-TV).
Moderated by Howard K. Smith of CBS; panelists were Sander Vanocur of NBC, Robert Fleming of ABC, Stuart Novins of CBS (from "Face the Nation"), and Charles Warren of MBS.
Number of viewers/listeners: 73,500,000.
Topic: domestic policy.
Transcript: [Link]

Format: each candidate gave an 8-minute statement of outlining his general position on domestic policies. Afterward, the candidates sat on either side of Howard K. Smith and answered questions from the panel for 35 minutes. At the end, each man had three minutes for a closing statement.

The New York Times described their clothing in this debate: "Nixon wore a blue-gray suit, a pale blue shirt and a dark blue tie. The Senator [JFK] was dressed in an oxford gray single-breasted suit in the narrow Ivy League cut. He wore a non-telegenic white shirt." [NYT 9/27/1960]

Nixon arrived at the studio first. As he got out of his car, he bumped a knee - which he had had surgery on earlier in the year from an injury while campaigning in North Carolina. He chatted with some broadcast executives who greeted him, then went into the studio. Kennedy arrived next, greeted the executives, and went into the studio. When Nixon saw JFK, he stood up to greet him and accidentally hit his head on a suspended microphone. [NYT 9/27/1960]

The debate was genteel. The candidates drew their lines of difference on the issues in a very gentlemanly way. JFK referred several times to his experience in Washington DC and that he and Nixon were first elected to the U.S. House in 1946. He criticized Nixon's farm program, argued for a higher minimum wage, more federal money for school construction, and more money for federal medical care for the aged. JFK charged that bills he introduced to achieve his goals did not pass due to threatened DDE vetoes.

Nixon was mostly on the defensive. He rebutted JFK's statement that the USA was stagnant, pointing out that wages rose more during Ike's administration than Truman's but without the inflation experienced during the Truman administration. Furthermore, more schools had been built during Ike's terms than in the 20 previous years. JFK had used the most recent statistics to prove his stagnation accusation but failed to state that those numbers had been generated during the recession year of 1958.

In the long run, Kennedy was determined to have "won" the debate primarily on the basis of his nonverbal performance. He did not wear any make-up and did not smile during the debate. Nixon wore what was called "pancake makeup," which made him sweat. Throughout the debate, Nixon was wiping sweat. He also smiled from time to time, which viewers believed was not presidential.

Note: the New York Times printed a transcript of the debate on 9/27/1960.

Second Debate: 10/7/1960, produced by NBC

Third Debate: 10/13/1960, produced by ABC

Fourth Debate: 10/21/1960, produced by ABC

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