Debate Prep: John F. Kennedy v. Richard Nixon (1960)

Jake Kyte is a senior at the University of Arkansas, studying journalism and political science with a concentration in advertising and public relations. Born in Washington, D.C., and raised in Ruston, Louisiana, Jake is a reporter for the Arkansas Traveler and also works as the editorial director for the U of A chapter of Spoon University. 

Presidential debates are a standing tradition, and something most voters look forward to every election season. It’s a chance to get to know the candidates, what they stand for, and see how they hold their own against an adversary – as a voter, it’s a chance to see who deserves the trust of the people. Yet it seems that the debates have fallen to the wayside in terms of decorum and value. They seem to be more for show than anything.

With the first 2016 presidential debate looming on the horizon, it is appropriate to return to the first official presidential debate, held in 1960 between candidates John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon. The debates have evolved and changed in the 56 years since that first debate, but returning to it and examining its structure and content may shed light on some of the practices today.

First and foremost, the format of the 1960 debate was simplistic, which I believe added to the effectiveness. As the debate was being broadcast both on television and radio, the proceedings had to remain simple enough to translate to radio format. Howard Smith moderated the two candidates as a few select audience members asked questions. They would pose them to either of the candidates, and then the opponent had a chance for a rebuttal. What struck me the most was the lack of interruption, and just the general respect that seemed to permeate the event. Especially during the primaries, that sort of respect for the institution and what the election stands for seems to be lost on today’s candidates. The Republican primaries this year bordered on disgraceful at times, with candidates yelling and shouting over each other. From watching Nixon and Kennedy, you get the sense that they’d be ashamed of any sort of behavior like that.

While the two men agreed to restrict the debate’s discussion to domestic policy, the content was constantly shadowed by the growing threat of Communism at the time. Whether they were talking about personal governmental experience, issues with the domestic farming program, or the reduction of federal debt, the shadow of the Iron Curtain fell quietly on all they discussed.

To me, it’s clear that Kennedy won the debate. There is much disagreement on how big an effect the televised debate had on the race as a whole, but I believe the importance of Kennedy’s image and charisma cannot be overlooked. For the first time, appearance and personality had a major impact on the race, and I think this change is why the races today lean so heavily on appearances and public perception rather than policy.

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