The Eleanor Roosevelt Papers

The 1960 Presidential Debates

In the six weeks prior to the 1960 presidential elections, the three major networks televised four debates between Senator John F. Kennedy and Vice-President Richard M. Nixon. The first debate, broadcast by CBS from its Chicago studios on September 26th, dealt with domestic issues; the second debate, aired from NBC's Washington studio on October 7th, expanded the format to include foreign policy. ABC's New York studio produced the third and fourth debates, which focused on foreign policy, on October 13th and October 21st. The networks dictated the format: a panel of four journalists, an opening statement of eight minutes for each candidate, and a two-and-a-half minute response. Radio also simultaneously broadcast the debates. Although television, still in its formative years, proved to be an effective tool for the telegenic Kennedy, radio listeners gave the edge to Nixon. Each debate had an viewing audience of between 60 and 70 million Americans. While the debate produced no clear victor, most scholars agree that Nixon, who throughout the campaign had stressed his experience and who had launched his senatorial career with intense questioning of Alger Hiss and defended it with the "Checkers" broadcast, had the most to lose and, therefore, was hurt the most by viewers' divided response.

Kennedy, more than Nixon, was eager to exploit the new medium, especially when polls showed that twice as many Americans relied on television as those who depended upon the standard printed news sources. As Theodore Sorensen recalled, the senator "realized that his most urgent campaign task was to become better known for something other than his religion." Television time was prohibitively expensive; however, the national networks offered free air time, providing Congress would suspend the requirement of "equal time for all fringe candidates." When Congress sent the bill to Eisenhower, the president signed it, while at the same time warning his vice-president not to debate Kennedy. Nixon, who remained confident in his debating ability and who found no "graceful" way to decline, accepted Kennedy's challenge and rejected Eisenhower and other Republicans' advice, sure he could master the medium he had used so successfully before to defend his reputation. Furthermore, he was anxious to take advantage of free television time. However, by the time of the first debate, Nixon, who, like Kennedy, was required to stand throughout the contest, had developed a painful blood infection in his knee and arrived at the studio in such pain that he looked "white and pasty." Although he answered the questions in great detail, he did not look or sound like an experienced, calm leader.

Sources: Theodore H. White, The Making of the President 1960 (New York: Atheneum House, Inc., 1988), pp. 282-283; Theodore Sorensen, Kennedy (New York: Harper & Row, 1965), pp.195-206.

Published by the Model Editions Partnership

Recommended citation: Eleanor Roosevelt, John Kennedy, and the Election of 1960: A Project of The Eleanor Roosevelt Papers, ed. by Allida Black, June Hopkins, John Sears, Christopher Alhambra, Mary Jo Binker, Christopher Brick, John S. Emrich, Eugenia Gusev, Kristen E. Gwinn, and Bryan D. Peery (Columbia, S.C.: Model Editions Partnership, 2003). Electronic version based on unpublished letters. .

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