Lessons From The Past, The First Televised Presidential Debate, 9/26/60 Kennedy vs Nixon


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.

During the election process, more than half the voters indicated the debates had influenced their choice.

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.

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Yeh — and the media has been sabotaging the election process ever since

also do not forget the massive voter fraud and early calls by the media

Ironically, Kennedy was desperately sick himself. A lot sicker than Nixon, actually. And he was full of drugs.


Kennedy’s illness may have played a part in Krushchev forming an impression of him as a weakling as a result of their 1961 face to face meeting; and this played a part in Soviet actions that led to the Cuban missile Crisis.


It is generally accepted that there was inexperience and immaturity on Kennedy’s part at the meeting, but I have also seen accounts of how physically exhausted he was at the time.

Both of these links are the NY Times, which one would expect to be a publication about as sympathetic to JFK as one is likely to find.

Starting in about 1943, Franklin Roosevelt was also quite ill. And, he was unable to stand due to paralysis from a bout with polio as a young man. The press of the time did not report on either of these things. They did not photograph him being lifted into and out of automobiles like a sack of potatoes, nor report that he could only stand at a podium by holding onto it, nor report on his illness as it overtook him. FDR’s illness is thought to have made him dangerously weak at the Yalta Conference, where Eastern Europe was essentially handed over to the Soviets. One can make allowance for wartime security and propaganda needs, but – there came a point before his death where he should have stepped down for the good of the country.

He also had help at Yalta from Alger Hiss a Soviet Agent dancing to Uncle Joe’s fiddle. FDR was warned of the duplicity of Hiss by the FBI, but like the Liberals of today they either don’t believe it or deny it, FDR refused to believe he had Soviet spies in his government and that Stalin was playing him for a dithering fool. Unfortunately for their argument, declassified KGB files document the involvement of Hiss and many others in the FDR Administration.

It’s woth noting that Walter Duranty was contemporaneous with the Roosevelt Administration.

And that the Pulitzer organization announced recently that he would keep his prize.

Left wing propaganda press masquerading as impartial is not a new phenomenon.

Thoughtful essay, Skook.

I watched that debate live in gorgeous of grainy B&W, on maybe a 14 inch screen. I was 13 years old. At the time, I was still living in a Republican household and I remember putting together a scrapbook for a junior high class, in which we were supposed to paste in newspaper articles, with our own comments. I pasted in an article which concluded that “Kennedy wins debate.” I remember adding my own note, stating, “I thought that Nixon won the debate.” I didn’t explain why. Simply stated my disagreement. At this date, I can’t remember why I thought that Nixon had won. Probably for the same reason that most people think that one candidate beat the other — simply because they always think that THEIR candidate won. Which is why debates are only held for the benefit for the 10% of voters who are up for grabs.

Appearances do matter. Not only in politics. Tall people succeed at a higher rate. So do attractive people. Overweight people have historically had a definite disadvantage.

Romney, Perry, Palin, Bachmann — all with a head start on the likes of Gingrich and Christie.

If Obama goes up against Christie in a debate, Obama would seem have an advantage — just in terms of the visual contrast.

On the other hand, I’m wondering: We now have a so-called “obesity epidemic.” So maybe this could be a plus for Christie??

Just musing…

– Larry Weisenthal/Huntington Beach CA

Even back then the propaganda media did all they could to get democrats elected. They knew Nixon had a knee problem, so they had them stand. They knew he sweated easily, so they turned up the heat.