Above is the full recording, nearly an hour, of the very first televised presidential debate. It happened 53 years ago tonight, on September 26, 1960, and featured the Republican candidate, sitting Vice President Richard M. Nixon, and the Democratic candidate, Senator John F. Kennedy. This debate was pivotal both to the outcome of the 1960 election and how presidential politics in America changed in the television era. It’s truly a classic piece of history.
This debate, the first of four, was held in Chicago in a television studio and was moderated by news anchor Howard K. Smith. The debate is famous in political history for showing the world how TV affected politics. Richard Nixon had recently gotten out of the hospital, and he didn’t shave right before he went on camera. As a result, he looked a bit haggard, and the five o’clock shadow didn’t look good in the crisp resolution of TV video. By contrast, Kennedy was cool, collected and looked dazzling and attractive. Regarded up until the debate as a sort of lightweight contender for the White House, on September 26 he suddenly looked presidential.
An interesting detail about this debate underscores the power of the visual. The debate was also carried on radio. Polled after it, a majority of radio listeners thought Nixon “won” the debate, while people who had watched on television thought Kennedy “won.”
There were actually three more debates in 1960, but this first one is the one everybody remembers, and the damage was done. The election was one of the closest in U.S. history, but Kennedy eked out an eleventh hour win over Nixon and returned Democratic rule to the White House for the first time in eight years. Nixon’s turn, of course, would come nine years later.
Enjoy the debate video. It’s pretty interesting.