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1960 Kennedy-Nixon Debates

Kennedy-Nixon debate

Image Source: Commission on Presidential Debates/ABC News

The first debate held on September 26, 1960, between Senator John F. Kennedy and Vice President Richard M. Nixon--especially the visual contrast between the televised image of the tanned, handsome Kennedy and the pale, sweating Nixon--is widely attributed as a key factor contributing to Kennedy's narrow victory in the November election. Approximately 70 million Americans, at the time the largest political audience in U.S. history, watched the first of the four debates.

Kennedy received 49.7% of the popular vote to Nixon's 49.5%, with the Democratic ticket polling only about 100,000 more votes than the Republicans out of over 68 million votes cast. Despite Nixon winning more states than Kennedy, the Electoral College vote went to the Democrats by a 303-219 margin.

As president, Kennedy would make effective use of television, and was the first president to hold live televised press conferences. When he resurrected his own political career leading to his election to the White House in 1968, Nixon would often travel to Florida or California to insure that he was tanned for his TV appearances.

"...The two men must have been nervous. At least Nixon was having a bit of physical difficulty. He bumped a knee getting out of his car in front of the studio-a former sports arena where professional wrestlers used to appear before the TV cameras.

Then while he was getting squared away in preliminary tests, Kennedy arrived, Nixon hopped up to offer a handshake and cracked his head on a microphone. He gave it a rub and shoved out a hand.

See you had a big crowd in Cleveland," Nixon said.

To nobody in particular, the vice president remarked "I got a little haircut today." He patted the nape of his neck.

Kennedy had his turn for camera and voice tests and he seemed to be a bit nervous and fidgety, too..."

Douglas B. Cornell, Associated Press



"...Kennedy was actually the first to turn down cosmetic help, according to Larry Bird, a Smithsonian curator of political history. "Nixon declined make-up because Kennedy declined," said Bird. And although declining make-up was probably not a strategic move on Kennedy's part, some say Nixon's poor image in that first debate helped push the Democratic nominee over the top in his razor-thin victory.

Yet image wasn't the only thing that carried the day for Kennedy in the first debate. His aggressive style eclipsed Nixon's more conciliatory posture. To many, Kennedy appeared more presidential. And in a strategic move designed to neutralize Nixon's advantage as Vice President, Kennedy addressed his opponent only as "Mr. Nixon," instead of the customary "Vice President Nixon." Bill Clinton used the same device in his 1992 debates with President George Bush, drawing criticism from Senator Bob Dole in their 1996 debates...."

Beverly Carter, The Debate Debate, Did the Televised Nixon-Kennedy Debates
Start a Revolution in American Politics?


"...The Great Debates marked television's grand entrance into presidential politics. They afforded the first real opportunity for voters to see their candidates in competition, and the visual contrast was dramatic. In August, Nixon had seriously injured his knee and spent two weeks in the hospital. By the time of the first debate he was still twenty pounds underweight, his pallor still poor. He arrived at the debate in an ill-fitting shirt, and refused make-up to improve his color and lighten his perpetual "5:00 o'clock shadow." Kennedy, by contrast, had spent early September campaigning in California. He was tan and confident and well-rested. "I had never seen him looking so fit," Nixon later wrote.

In substance, the candidates were much more evenly matched. Indeed, those who heard the first debate on the radio pronounced Nixon the winner. But the 70 million who watched television saw a candidate still sickly and obviously discomforted by Kennedy's smooth delivery and charisma. Those television viewers focused on what they saw, not what they heard. Studies of the audience indicated that, among television viewers, Kennedy was perceived the winner of the first debate by a very large margin...."

Erika Tyner Allen, The Kennedy-Nixon Presidential Debates, 1960

Source: The Museum of Broadcast Communications


Transcript: The First Kennedy-Nixon Presidential Debate: September 26, 1960 >> Commission on Presidential Debates

Beverly Carter, The Debate Debate, Did the Televised Nixon-Kennedy Debates Start a Revolution in American Politics? >> Smithsonian Institution

Erika Tyner Allen, The Kennedy-Nixon Presidential Debates, 1960 >> The Museum of Broadcast Communications

Kennedy-Nixon Debate >>

1960 Kennedy-Nixon Debate >> Commission on Presidential Debates

1960 Presidential Debates >>

The Election of 1960: JFK Defeats Nixon >>

John Fitzgerald Kennedy Library and Museum

The Richard Nixon Library and Birthplace

Educational Tools

Presidential Debates Teacher Guide >>