In 1960, John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon squared off in the first televised presidential debates in American history. The Kennedy-Nixon debates not only had a major impact on the election’s outcome but ushered in a new era in which crafting a public image and taking advantage of media exposure became essential ingredients of a successful political campaign. They also heralded the central role television has continued to play in the democratic process.

Background to the Kennedy-Nixon Debates

The U.S. presidential election of 1960 came at a decisive time in American history. The country was engaged in a heated Cold War with the Soviet Union, which had just taken the lead in the space race by launching the Sputnik satellite. The rise of Fidel Castro’s revolutionary regime in Cuba had heightened fears about the spread of communism in the Western Hemisphere. On the domestic front, the struggle for civil rights and desegregation had deeply divided the nation, raising crucial questions about the state of democracy in the United States.

At a time when the need for strong leadership was all too obvious, two vastly different candidates vied for the presidency: John F. Kennedy, a young but dynamic Massachusetts senator from a powerful New England family, and Richard Nixon, a seasoned lawmaker who was currently serving as vice president. With little more than a single unremarkable term in the U.S. Senate under his belt, the 43-year-old Kennedy lacked Nixon’s extensive foreign policy experience and had the disadvantage of being one of the first Catholics to run for president on a major party ticket. 

Nixon, by contrast, had spent nearly eight years as the country’s second-in-command after an illustrious career in Congress. During that time, he had cast crucial votes on a variety of domestic issues, became one of global communism’s most outspoken critics and helped expose Alger Hiss’ alleged espionage attempt—all by the age of 39.

The rivals campaigned tirelessly throughout the summer of 1960, with Nixon inching ahead in the polls to gain a slim lead. When the season began to turn, however, so did the tables. Nixon took a major hit in August when a reporter asked President Dwight D. Eisenhower to name some of his vice president’s contributions. 

Exhausted and irritated after a long press conference, Eisenhower replied, “If you give me a week, I might think of one. I don’t remember.” (While the remark was intended as a self-deprecating reference to the president’s own mental fatigue, the Democrats promptly used it in a television commercial that ended with the statement: “President Eisenhower could not remember, but the voters will remember.”) 

That same month, Nixon bashed his knee on a car door while campaigning in North Carolina and developed an infection that landed him in the hospital; he emerged two weeks later frail, sallow and 20 pounds underweight.

Did you know? Kennedy’s bronzed complexion made him look like the picture of health compared to Nixon, but many historians have speculated that his characteristic tan was a symptom of Addison’s disease, the endocrine disorder that plagued him for much of his life.

The Candidates Face Off

On the evening of September 26, when the two candidates arrived at the CBS broadcast facility in downtown Chicago for the first televised presidential debate in American history, Nixon’s streak of bad luck continued. Stepping out of the car, he banged his bad knee and exacerbated his earlier injury. The vice president had recently suffered a bout of the flu and was still running a low fever; he had nonetheless spent a grueling day on the campaign trail and looked drained. Kennedy, meanwhile, had been holed up in a hotel with his aides for an entire weekend, fielding practice questions and resting up for the first of four “Great Debates.”

Despite Nixon’s exhaustion and Kennedy’s preparedness, the Republican and Democrat were more or less evenly matched when it came to substance. Each held forth skillfully and presented remarkably similar agendas. Both emphasized national security, the threat of communism, the need to strengthen the U.S. military and the importance of building a brighter future for America. Indeed, after Kennedy’s opening statement, Nixon said, “I subscribe completely to the spirit that Senator Kennedy has expressed tonight.” And yet, while most radio listeners called the first debate a draw or pronounced Nixon the victor, the senator from Massachusetts won over the 70 million television viewers by a broad margin.

Maybe It’s Lazy Shave

What accounted for this discrepancy? For one thing, television was a relatively recent addition to America’s living rooms, and politicians were still seeking the right formula for interacting with the public in this new, more intimate way. Kennedy nailed it during their debates, staring directly into the camera as he answered each question. Nixon, on the other hand, looked off to the side to address the various reporters, which came across as shifting his gaze to avoid eye contact with the public—a damaging blunder for a man already known derisively as “Tricky Dick.”

The gap in the candidates’ on-air presence was not just a matter of charisma; it was also one of cosmetics. Before the first debate, both men declined the services of CBS’s top makeup artist, who had been summoned from New York for the event. Bronzed and glowing from weeks of open-air campaigning, Kennedy was more than ready for his close-up—though sources later claimed that the naturally telegenic senator still got a touch-up from his team.

Nixon, on the other hand, had a pale complexion and fast-growing stubble that together lent him a perpetually grayish pallor; during an interview with Walter Cronkite two weeks before the debate, the vice president had confided, “I can shave within 30 seconds before I go on television and still have a beard.”

At his aides’ urging, Nixon submitted to a coat of Lazy Shave, a drugstore pancake makeup he had used in the past to mask his five o’clock shadow. But when the candidate started sweating under the hot studio lights, the powder seemed to melt off his face, giving way to visible beads of perspiration. It didn’t help that Nixon had chosen a light gray suit for the occasion, which faded into the backdrop of the set and seemed to match his ashen skin tone. 

Reacting to the vice president’s on-air appearance, Chicago mayor Richard J. Daley reportedly said, “My God, they’ve embalmed him before he even died.” The following day, the Chicago Daily News ran the headline “Was Nixon Sabotaged by TV Makeup Artists?” The vice president cleaned up his act for the next three debates, but the damage had been done. Besides, Kennedy had a secret weapon in his quest to dazzle the American media: an equally picture-perfect wife who would soon charm the nation and the world. 

Six months pregnant with the couple’s second child, Jacqueline Kennedy hosted debate-watching parties at the family’s summer home in Hyannis Port, Massachusetts. Newspapers fawned over every last detail, from Jackie’s fashionable maternity wear and distinguished guest list to her living room furnishings and choice of refreshments. When the first debate ended, the future first lady reportedly concluded, “I think my husband was brilliant.” Meanwhile, Nixon’s mother immediately called her son to ask if he was ill.

Legacy of the Kennedy-Nixon Debates

A month and a half later, Americans turned out to vote in record numbers. As predicted, it was a close election, with Kennedy winning the popular vote 49.7 percent to 49.5 percent. Polls revealed that more than half of all voters had been influenced by the Great Debates, while 6 percent claimed that the debates alone had decided their choice.

Whether or not the debates cost Nixon the presidency, they were a major turning point in the 1960 race—and in the history of television. Televised debates have become a permanent feature of the American political landscape, helping to shape the outcomes of both primary and general elections. Along with distinguishing themselves from their opponents, candidates have the opportunity to showcase their oratory skills (or betray their inarticulateness), display their sense of humor (or reveal their lack thereof) and capitalize on their rivals’ gaffes (or seal their fate with a slip of the tongue). 

Two years after the Kennedy-Nixon debates, the man on the losing end acknowledged their importance—and his fatal misstep—in his 1962 memoir Six Crises: “I should have remembered that ‘a picture is worth a thousand words.’”

HISTORY Vault: U.S. Presidents

Stream U.S. Presidents documentaries and your favorite HISTORY series, commercial-free