It would become the best known of all presidential debates, but nobody seemed to appreciate the impact that the first clash between candidates Richard Nixon and John Kennedy would have. Newspapers had barely mentioned it beforehand. Networks didn't promote it. Nixon didn't even prepare for it.
But in one hour on Sept. 26, 1960, the new medium of television went from operating as a mere player to being the dominant force in political campaigns. "It's rare to find one moment that so demarcates one era from another," says Alan Schroeder, a Northeastern University professor and author of Presidential Debates—Forty Years of High-Risk TV.
Nixon should have known better. TV had launched his national career, starting with the Alger Hiss hearings in 1948. Later appearances earned him a reputation as master of the medium. Until, that is, he confronted Kennedy. JFK took debate day off and practiced with aides. Nixon, though, felt his experience was enough to spar with the younger Kennedy. He knew his policy, but he was wrong to neglect the medium. Against the handsome and charming Kennedy, Nixon, who had recently been hospitalized, looked downright haggard: His wan look was exaggerated by a too-large shirt collar, he perspired, and he refused makeup that might have covered his five o'clock shadow. He glanced at the clock while Kennedy spoke, not realizing he was on camera. "A perfect storm of factors ensured Nixon was not going to look presidential," says Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania.
There has been a perception that radio listeners thought Nixon won on substance while TV viewers preferred Kennedy because of his more handsome appearance. But superficial influences also sway radio audiences, notes Michael Schudson, a communications professor at the University of California-San Diego. "Nixon was famous for his winningly deep, resonant voice, and Kennedy was famous for an accent that to most Americans was pretty strange." And only one poll was taken, of uncertain reliability.
Overcoming fears. It's also unclear if that first debate changed many votes. Three later debates didn't. But it did give Kennedy an initial win. Kennedy overcame fears that his inexperience made him the weaker candidate. (Nixon refused debates against lesser-known candidates in 1968 and 1972.)
Decades later, the event has been transformed in the political imagination. Kennedy's assassination froze his youthful charm in time, while Nixon's eventual disgrace seems presaged in his appearance on that telecast. Says David Birdsell, dean of the School of Public Affairs at Baruch College: "He now appears the very embodiment of the dark spirit of politics."