America’s First Presidential Debate

Introduction: In this article – just in time for tonight’s presidential debate – Jane Hampton Cook writes about the first-ever presidential debate: Nixon v. Kennedy on 26 September 1960. Jane is a presidential historian and author of ten books, including her new book Resilience on Parade: Short Stories of Suffragists & Women’s Battle for the Vote. She is the author of Stories of Faith and Courage from the Revolutionary War. She was the first female White House webmaster (2001-03). Her works can be found at Janecook.com.

Sixty years ago, two presidential candidates took to a Chicago stage for America’s first televised presidential debate. One candidate was Vice President Richard Nixon. The other was U.S. Senator John F. Kennedy. Historians in hindsight suggest that the Americans who heard it on radio believed that Nixon won the debate, while those who watched on television thought Kennedy won the debate. But is that how the newspapers covered it at the time?

Photo: Richard Nixon (left) and John Kennedy (right)
Photo: Richard Nixon (left) and John Kennedy (right). Credit: White House; Wikimedia Commons.

A search in GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives reveals the immediate response to the debate as depicted in the newspapers. The focus of the newspaper coverage was the novelty of the candidates standing on their own without help, and Americans’ response to them.

“Candidates ‘On Their Own,’ Nervous during TV ‘Debate’” was the headline in the Seattle Daily Times on 27 September 1960, in an article written by a reporter for United Press International. This article focused on the fact that the candidates answered questions without any assistance from their high-powered advisers or cheering crowds “to goad [them] to the heights of political oratory.”

An article about the first presidential debate, between Nixon and Kennedy, Seattle Daily Times newspaper article 27 September 1960
Seattle Daily Times (Seattle, Washington), 27 September 1960, page 6
An article about the first presidential debate, between Nixon and Kennedy, Seattle Daily Times newspaper article 27 September 1960
Seattle Daily Times (Seattle, Washington), 27 September 1960, page 6

The article reported:

“Outside the soundproof doors of the cavernous studio, Nixon and Kennedy left their entourages of advisers… There were not even teleprompters to turn to for a catchy phrase.”

A panel of reporters asked the questions and did not submit them in advance to the candidates. The reporter explained:

“For the first time in their campaigns Nixon and Kennedy were strictly on their own.”

The result is that both candidates were nervous.

Kennedy’s nerves came out in momentarily forgetting the format. At one point, Kennedy forgot to look at the camera. When he thought one of the panelists had misquoted him, “the Democratic candidate temporarily forgot the on-camera and directed his retort right back at the panelist.”

Nixon’s nerves came out in his body language.

“Nixon repeatedly wet his lips and dabbed at his mouth with his handkerchief when he was off camera.”

Nixon’s appearance is one of the reasons historians concluded that Kennedy did better on television. The substance of Nixon’s answers may have played better on radio.

At the time, however, newspapers reported on the effect of the debate in real time. The angle wasn’t on whether Americans watched it on television or listened on radio. The focus was whether the debate had changed their minds.

“Most Listeners Not Influenced by Debate, A. P. Survey Finds,” was the headline in another article in this Seattle Daily Times newspaper. The telephone survey had targeted 10 voters each in 10 major U.S. cities. Though 65 percent said the debate had not influenced them, the 35 percent who agreed that the debate had influenced them leaned toward Kennedy.

An article about the first presidential debate, between Nixon and Kennedy, Seattle Daily Times newspaper article 27 September 1960
Seattle Daily Times (Seattle, Washington), 27 September 1960, page 6

“I have been undecided, but I am now for Kennedy. I think he gave more intelligent answers to the questions and spoke more confidently,” William F. Lott, a pharmaceuticals manufacturer from Kansas City, told the Associated Press.

While the immediate coverage did not address ratings, it did provide some data on the effect of the first televised presidential debate. “TV Debate Puts Crimp in N.Y. Night Life” was the headline in another article in the Seattle Daily Times. The first televised debate had a depressing effect on the New York night life and theater crowd. “Legitimate theaters reported business was off as much as 20 per cent and movie theaters played to near-empty houses.”

An article about the first presidential debate, between Nixon and Kennedy, Seattle Daily Times newspaper article 27 September 1960
Seattle Daily Times (Seattle, Washington), 27 September 1960, page 6

Was there any post-debate spin? Yes, debate spin took the form of separate articles about the candidates’ campaign rallies the next day. “Nixon Challenges Kennedy’s Figures on America’s Needy” was the headline of Nixon’s campaign event in West Virginia, while “Kennedy Gets 2nd Ovation in Ohio” covered Kennedy’s next stop, as the Seattle Daily Times published.

Kennedy and Nixon held three more presidential debates. Kennedy, of course, won the 1960 presidential election while Nixon later won the 1968 presidential election. Ever since, presidential candidates have followed their lead, making televised debates essential events of modern presidential campaigns.

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