On this day in 1960, Massachusetts Democratic Senator John F. Kennedy and Republican Vice President Richard M. Nixon face each other in a nationally televised presidential campaign debate.
The debate ushered in an era in which television would dominate political campaigns. The immediacy and power of television worked well for candidates who could think on their feet and knew how to play to the audience. At the first of four debates, Kennedy arrived looking well-groomed and confident, while his opponent Nixon, who had just been released from the hospital after two weeks recuperating from a badly injured knee, appeared haggard and was sporting a “5 o’clock shadow” or light beard. Although he arrived in a wrinkled suit and appeared underweight and had a grayish pallor, Nixon refused the assistance of a makeup artist, a decision he likely later regretted. Kennedy clearly “won” the debate, a fact attributable to both his superior comfort level with the new communication medium and his “telegenic” good looks.
According to the Museum of Broadcast History, radio listeners considered Nixon’s answers to questions to be more substantive and gave Nixon the advantage over Kennedy after the first debate. By contrast, television viewers gave Kennedy the edge, as their impressions were based on how the candidate looked as much as what he said.
Nixon’s negative experience with televised debates led him to refuse to engage in such debates during the 1968 and 1972 campaigns.