American political and broadcast history unfolded on this day in history, Sept. 26, 1960, as Vice President Richard Nixon, a California Republican, and Sen. John F. Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat, debated on television before a national audience.
The nation’s first-ever televised presidential debate was held in Chicago and broadcast on CBS. The candidates squared off on television three more times that year before the election of Nov. 8, 1960.
The events “shifted how presidential campaigns were conducted, as the power of television took elections into American’s living rooms,” the National Constitution Center points out.
“The debate [on Sept. 26, 1960] was watched live by 70 million Americans and it made politics an electronic spectator sport,” the same source said.
“It also gave many potential voters their first chance to see actual presidential candidates in a live environment, as potential leaders.”
The debate pitted two political titans against one another.
Nixon was one of the most popular politicians in U.S. history before his presidency and reputation were toppled by the Watergate scandal in 1974.
He was Dwight Eisenhower’s running mate when the GOP easily defeated Democrat challengers in the 1952 and 1956 elections (winning 80 of 96 possible states).
Nixon enjoyed his own landslide victories atop the ticket in 1968 and in 1972 (81 of 100 states).
JFK was a World War II hero and the most charismatic figure of the burgeoning Kennedy political dynasty.
He proved Nixon’s most formidable foe, handing the vice president his only major national election defeat in the 1960 presidential election.
Kennedy captured 49.7% of the popular vote compared to 49.6% for Nixon.
The margin of victory was shockingly slim.
Kennedy captured 49.7% of the popular vote to 49.6% for Nixon.
The Republican carried more states, 26 of 48 — but Kennedy won the all-important electoral vote, 303-219.
Television may have proved the deciding factor in Kennedy’s win, according to many political pundits.
Kennedy’s bright and ready smile shined on black and white TV — and viewers thought he generally appeared more at ease.
Nixon had suffered a knee injury on the campaign trail in August, which became infected and put him in the hospital.
He “emerged two weeks later frail, sallow and 20 pounds underweight,” reports History.com.
He also was suffering the flu just before the debate, had reinjured his knee on the way into the studio and refused to wear TV make-up.
Nixon dabbed sweat from his brow during the broadcast.
The effect was dramatic: The vice president looked sickly and frail, while the senator appeared vibrant and healthy.
“Each held forth skillfully and presented remarkably similar agendas,” writes History.com.
Vice President Nixon looked sickly and frail; Sen. Kennedy looked vibrant and healthy.
“While most radio listeners called the first debate a draw or pronounced Nixon the victor, the senator from Massachusetts won over the 70 million television viewers by a broad margin,” the same source notes.
There were no televised presidential-candidate debates in 1964, 1968 or 1972.
President Lyndon B. Johnson refused to debate in 1964 (he won that election over GOP nominee Barry Goldwater) — while Nixon also declined to debate in both the 1968 and 1972 elections, according to History.com
The debates didn’t start up again until 1976, when then-President Gerald Ford agreed to debate Georgia Gov. Jimmy Carter.