The election of 1960 was a turning point in American history. This turning point was largely due to the technological advancements that allowed for the first ever presidential debates to be aired live on national television. While it may not seem like a big deal, the televised debates not only altered the 1960 election, it changed the course of politics for years to come.
Richard Nixon was the republican nominee, he had been around politics for many years and had the upper hand in experience and reputation, he was serving as the vice president at the time. (History.com par 1) John Kennedy, the democrat nominee, was vastly different. At just 43 years old, Kennedy was one of the youngest men to run for office, and you could see the difference in his campaign tactics and appearance. In the midst of an intense cold war and racial inequality dividing the nation, either one of the two vastly different candidates had a chance. With 90% of households owning a television, (JFK vid 0:50) Kennedy understood that using technology to his advantage was the best way to sell himself to the country.
In the days leading up to the debate, it was clear Kennedy was very aware of the impression he was making on those who would tune in to watch the debate. Not only did he prepare his responses to questions, he took it a step further. He met with producers to discuss camera angles, wore a navy blue suit in order to reduce glare and create a contrast from the gray background, and appeared very tan and in shape. Nixon on the other hand, was not prepared. Days before the debate while Kennedy was resting and preparing, Nixon was out campaigning and traveling. Not to mention, he was still recovering from the flu as well as dealing with a knee injury. (JFK vid 1:15) It was almost as if he did not think the debate was important enough to prepare for, and that he could use his knowledge and experience to out debate Kennedy.
When the day of the debate finally arrived, 70 million viewers tuned in to watch America's first ever televised presidential debate. Kennedy's preparation was evident as his answers were smoothly delivered, he appeared very relaxed and always looked confident. His navy suit paired well with the background and it was evident he was not in the least bit nervous. Nixon wore a charcoal grey suit that blended with background set. He was visibly weak and looked physically exhausted. He refused to wear makeup before going on stage and was very pale and underweight from battling the flu. He constantly shifted standing positions and never looked comfortable due to his knee injury. He was visibly sweating and often times had to wipe off his upper lip. After the debate, the majority of people who watched the debate on television, though that Kennedy had won the debate. Those who listened to the debate on the radio, thought that Nixon had won. The first debate is aid to have swayed nearly 4 million voters toward Kennedy (JFK vid 1:30).
Of course, there was no way for Kennedy to know exactly how important this debate would be, but he knew he could not take it lightly. Kennedy's speech writer Ted Sorenson while prepping Kennedy for the debate said "We knew the first televised debate was important, but we had no idea how important it was going to turn out being." (Kayla Webley Par. 2) As we look back on the historic moment now, it is easy to see how impactful this debate was. Even today, presidential debates are still just as relevant. The amount of preparation that goes into debates follow roughly the same process as Kennedy did, arguably because candidates today are trying to make the same impact on the viewers that Kennedy made in 1960.
Kennedy would go on to win the 1960 presidential election with 303 electoral votes to Nixon's 219. Kennedy also won the popular vote by an estimated 0.17%. Kennedy's remarkable performance in the 1960 debate set the stage for future candidates and elevated the importance of television. Kennedy stated just four days after winning the election, "It was the TV more than anything that turned the tide" (Webley par. 4) It is very likely, in fact, almost undeniable, that without the impact of the televised debate, Kennedy does not win the election. Kennedy was the perfect candidate to use the first televised debate to his advantage, and he set the standard for how debates should be prepared for.
How JFK's Clever TV Strategies Helped Him Win the Election. Smithsonian Channel, 2017. Youtube, www.youtube.com/watch?v=GMWQnoDA0o8. Accessed 30 Sept. 2019.
"John F Kennedy on Technology." Www.ontheissues.org, 1st ed., 11 Sept. 2018, www.ontheissues.org/Celeb/John_F__Kennedy_Technology.htm. Accessed 30 Sept. 2019.
"The Kennedy-Nixon Debates." History.com, 1st ed., 21 Sept. 2010, www.history.com/topics/us-presidents/kennedy-nixon-debates. Accessed 26 Sept. 2019.
Parkinson, Hilary. "Does Television Affect How We Elect Presidents?" Prologue.blogs.archives.gov, 1st ed., 15 Nov. 2010, prologue.blogs.archives.gov/2010/11/15/does-television-affect-how-we-elect-presidents/. Accessed 27 Sept. 2019.
Webley, Kayla. "How the Nixon-Kennedy Debate Changed the World." Content.time.com, 1st ed., version 1, revision 1, content.time.com/time/nation/article/0,8599,2021078,00.html. Accessed 23 Sept. 2019.