Senator Kennedy and Vice President Nixon engaged in the first televised presidential debate on September 26, 1960, with over 70 million viewers watching. It was the first of four debates and it was focused on domestic issues.
The debate was an historical event: primarily, because it was the first televised presidential election debate, thus initiating television as an important medium in presidential elections and revealing how superficial and shallow the American voter can be regarding appearances, yet how critical or important appearances are in elections.
It can be argued that the visual contrast between the opponents was the defining issue that determined the election.
In August, Nixon suffered a serious injury to his knee and was hospitalized for two weeks. On September 26, 1960, he was still twenty pounds underweight, he looked tired, and had the pallor that accompanies pain and hospital stays. He arrived in an ill-fitting shirt and refused make-up to hide his perpetual 5 o’clock shadow. He looked tired and haggard; some said, he looked like a drunk.
Kennedy had just finished a month long campaign in California. He was tanned, fit, looking young, confident and well rested.
Nixon later wrote, “I had never seen him looking so fit.”
The candidates were evenly matched in the debate; those who listened on the radio thought Nixon had won the debate, but those who saw the debate on television could not see past Nixon as a sickly man in pain; especially, compared to the healthy and charismatic appearance of Kennedy, with his smooth delivery and quaint Boston accent. That vast audience of 70 million television viewers focused on physical appearances rather than the messages and Kennedy was perceived as the winner by a vast majority.
Democrats predictably argue, without hesitation or logic, that Kennedy would have won the election regardless of Nixon’s appearance, but as a lad becoming aware of the presidential elections, I can vouch for the public’s opinion of Nixon’s haggard appearance being a major topic of conversation for years and yet almost no one could recall the topic of the debate.
Thus presidential debates became an integral part of campaigns and the concept of image became one of the most important criteria in presidential elections. In previous elections, still photography, the occasional black and white film clip, and the voice were defining elements for a candidate, but since that first Great Debate, it is imperative that every potential candidate pay particular attention to their appearance.
There is a sizable demographic that will vote primarily on the appearance and charisma of the candidates, substance is a secondary consideration, if it is even considered. Our current president is an excellent case in point. Most voters assumed he could deliver those grand speeches at any time, they had no idea that he can barely form a sentence, without a battery of teleprompters. Most Americans were unaware of what a teleprompter was until the Obama Administration, now they assume it is a prerequisite for speeches. It can be argued that the Obama election was a continuation of the Kennedy election, in that an image was elected, not only an image, but an assumed or perceived image of what people wanted to see. In both elections, it was not only an image that was elected, but an image was defeated.
Whether we like it or not, this swing vote of image seekers determine elections. Thankfully, the Obama image has become identified with poverty, unemployment, Narcissism, Elitism and of a dilettante with few or no solutions and many excuses. An image that no candidate wants to drag with him to an election and a hard deficit to overcome. Yet, he still has many followers who believe in the Obama of 2008 Image, despite his performance for the last two years.
No serious candidate will doubt the image component, but it is still important to be aware of that first Nixon versus Kennedy Debate of September 26, and its’ effect on the history of our nation.