Kennedy-Nixon debates inform today’s presidential politics
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has not helped her Democratic Party’s presidential nominee Joe Biden by suggesting he decline to debate President Donald Trump. However, she has usefully drawn attention to the importance of televised encounters between presidential, and vice presidential, candidates.
During the intense 1960 presidential contest, Sen. John F. Kennedy and Vice President Richard M. Nixon made history by debating face-to-face on nationwide TV and on radio. The faceoff, in September in a CBS studio in Chicago, redefined American politics in terms of how candidates compete and communicate.
The broadcast battle was the first of four debates, each notably in-depth by comparison with today’s superficial visual posturing and sound bite statements. Each man had a relatively lengthy 8-minute opening presentation, with follow-up rebuttal statements.
These path-breaking battles drew a then-unprecedented television audience. The estimated viewers for each debate was at least 65 million people, with an overall total greater than the 90 million who saw the 1959 World Series between the Los Angeles Dodgers and Chicago White Sox.
The first debate was to be about domestic policy, but Kennedy ignored that restriction. Repeatedly, he compared U.S. performance in economic growth, education, space exploration and other fields to that of the Soviet Union.
None of the panel of reporters who questioned the candidates pointed this out. Since FDR’s time, working reporters had moved toward the Democratic Party. Kennedy was especially skillful in cultivating them.
The Cold War was intense, and Kennedy’s emphasis on Soviet strength reflected contemporary opinion. A quarter century later, Japan was supposed to be burying us economically. Today, many assign that alarming role to China. Successful politicians reflect public sentiments of their times, and times change.
When Kennedy began speaking from his chair, Nixon quietly and politely pointed that out. Without missing a beat, JFK smoothly rose and walked to the podium.
John Kennedy’s on-camera ease, polished style and smooth body language contrasted with Richard Nixon’s apparent tension. Television highlights visual dimensions and such surface differences. By contrast, a review of the transcripts of the encounter shows Nixon was more orderly and logical, more organized and specific.
Yet Kennedy enjoyed the political triumph. The political partisanship of television, newspaper and other reporters can account for only a small part of this result. Journalists of that era were far more professional and muted their own biases as a matter of expectation.
By 1960, a plurality of the electorate lived in the suburbs. Though each candidate paid tribute to the American farmer, the sharp historic divisions between rural and urban, and between workers and the wealthy, were declining as the middle class expanded enormously. Old cleavages were fading.
Kennedy presented a fresh, sophisticated image seemingly more in tune with these newly suburban Americans. Author Norman Mailer captured this in an impressionistic but insightful “Esquire” magazine article titled “Superman Comes to the Supermarket.”
Nixon constantly presented himself as more mature and experienced, at the right hand of President Dwight Eisenhower. Using TV, Kennedy sharply defined himself and equalized standing with Nixon. Debates among early contenders as well as nominated candidates have now become central to presidential campaigns. For that, thank President Gerald Ford’s 1976 agreement to debate former Georgia Gov. Jimmy Carter.
Rich insights resonate from the epic 1960 interchange of two talented politicians. You should review the program, especially if you never have watched — or listened to — the contest, and evaluate 2020 contenders against this high standard.
Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College and author of “After the Cold War” (NYU Press and Macmillan). Contact firstname.lastname@example.org.