Editorials on ‘Historic’ Televised Nixon-Kennedy Debate
History’s verdict is that Senator John F. Kennedy upstaged Vice President Richard M. Nixon when the two participated in the first-ever televised presidential debate on Sept. 26, 1960, a historic event that was watched by more than 70 million Americans. The younger Kennedy was handsome, tanned and confident, and made the better impression on television viewers. Nixon, who had recently spent two weeks in the hospital with an infected knee, was pale, underweight, and noticeably sweating under the glare of the harsh television lights. He looked awful compared to his attractive rival on the other side of the stage, and Americans noticed.
While the press reaction immediately after the televised debate was ambivalent about which candidate “won” the contest, most newspaper editorials immediately recognized the historic stature of the event. Political campaigning was forever changed. From now on candidates would also be judged by how they looked, not just what policy positions they took.
The following newspaper article presents a summary of editorials from around the nation after the televised Nixon-Kennedy debate. This copyrighted article was published by the Oregonian (Portland, Oregon) on Sept. 28, 1960:
Press Reaction Varied, Mostly Favorable, to First TV Debate between Two Candidates
By the Associated Press.
The televised Nixon-Kennedy debate was seen in press reaction Tuesday as bringing a new dimension into presidential campaigning.
But there was counsel, too, that a president must “be more than a slick television personality” and that newspapers provided the “permanency of print” in comparing candidates.
The event was seen, nevertheless, as an historic occasion.
Opinion varied on “who won?” A number of editorials gave good marks to both men.
“American presidential campaigning will never be the same again,” said the Milwaukee Journal.
It said millions of Americans in the comfort of their homes “heard in personal debate and discussion the two able, experienced, well informed and expressive contenders. It was unprecedented. It was exciting. Most of all it was informative.”
The Boston Traveler said that through TV “The 20th century is truly providing what our founding fathers in the 18th century hoped for—an informed electorate, equipped with the comparative knowledge to make the best choice.”
The Hearst newspapers hailed the debate as an historic occasion and said “we welcome the new dimension.”
But the Hearst group held that television has its defects, too, and that “the press can offer a service beyond the means of TV.”
“In the permanency of print, newspaper readers have the opportunity to compare and study the views of the candidates, and to return to them as often as needed.”
The Worcester, Mass., Evening Gazette said there were two dangers in such debates.
“One is that the detailed position on which the candidates are setting forth…will be ignored by voters who assume they can learn from these shows all they need to know about the issues,” the Evening Gazette said.
“The second is that there will be an over-emphasis on appearances and ability to talk. A president in these times must be more than a slick television personality.”
The Philadelphia Bulletin held that one great advantage of the television method of discussing the issues “is that the speakers are talking to the whole country, and must therefore refrain from shaping their arguments to appeal to certain sections and elements.”
Debates ‘Helpful Gauge’
The Baltimore Evening Sun said the debate offered “a more revealing insight into the personalities of the presidential candidates and also their stand on public policies than most people are likely to get in any other way.”
The debate was described by the Christian Science Monitor as “highly useful in helping citizens gauge the character and purpose of each candidate. Also in clarifying the difference between them on domestic issues.”
The St. Louis Post-Dispatch said the debate was stiff and formalized but that “the surprising thing was that a real discussion of issues did take place, a real division on principle did begin to take shape.”
“Both men,” said the Atlanta Journal, “were on their own before a huge audience. There can be no trickery or demagogy in face-to-face exchange and direct question and answer procedure.”
The Buffalo Evening News said the chief result of the debate “may be to whet the public’s appetite for far more solid discussion of issues than we have had from either one to date.”
The Newark, N.J., Evening News said “this was a campaign experiment that demonstrated politics may be waged intelligently, even urbanely.”
“Not the least of the solid results of the Nixon-Kennedy debate is the fact that it came just about in time to save the country from being talked to death by Khrushchev and Castro,” said the Evening News.
The Macy-Westchester newspaper group in the New York City suburban area found, however, that “the almost genial tone” of the debate suffered by comparison with the recent “carrying-on” of Castro and Khrushchev.
The St. Paul Dispatch said the candidates set a precedent in presidential campaigning.
“In the international field there was a top example of western democracy in action,” said the Dispatch.
Some newspapers saw no need for the television reporters who asked questions of the candidates in a panel session during part of the program.
“The encounters will not be real debates until the candidates are permitted to ask their own questions of each other, rather than being interrogated by television reporters,” said the Miami News.
“A free-wheeling discussion on a well-narrowed subject, no reporters, and perhaps a lone moderator to keep the argument on the track—might not this lead to deeper insights which were missing Monday?” asked the Portland, Maine, Evening Express.
The Chicago American said “two of the interviewers threw Nixon loaded questions that were plainly designed less to elicit information than to put him in an awkward spot. Nixon handled them admirably, but it’s still a mystery why the panel should get into this act at all.”
Here are comments on the performances of the two candidates:
“We would not undertake to say whether a single vote was changed. But if not, the supporters of each surely had their preference bolstered.”—Chicago Daily News.
“Mr. Nixon seemed to grasp the complexity of some of these problems last night in a way that Mr. Kennedy simply did not. That was the greatest difference we saw between them.”—Richmond, Va., News Leader.
“Sen. Kennedy appeared the more assured; Vice President Nixon was more labored.”—Baltimore Evening Sun.
“Each proved himself a skillful debater with the materials at hand; but the seriousness of the crucial decision ahead was not lost in the Nixon presentation. There was nothing sophomoric in his attitude or in his treatment of issues.”—Nashville Banner.
“We should not say that anybody won. (Nixon) did not succeed…in showing himself markedly more mature, un-naïve or responsible than Mr. Kennedy. They both looked pretty young to us.”—St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
“Last night’s debate set up a model of deportment for political campaigners. It must have produced, for non-partisans, a favorable impression of both candidates.”—Philadelphia Bulletin.
“Both did well.”—Chattanooga News-Free Press.
“Who came out first? Who is dispassionate enough to be able to watch a combined Nixon-Kennedy television performance and judge with complete detachment one or the other as the winner?”—Watertown, N.Y., Times.
Click here for more articles about American History in the 1960s.
Click here for more articles about the Kennedys.