The date is 8:30 in the evening on Monday, September 26th, 1960. The world, or at least America, watches as Republican Vice President Richard Milhous Nixon and Democratic Senator John Fitzgerald Kennedy (the two leading and strongest candidates for the position of the 35th President of the United States) participated in the first ever televised presidential debate. The city is Chicago, the Windy City.
And the channel is the WBBM-TV, owned by CBS. The growing influence of television seemed to show the entire world of entertainment and news broadcasting that sometimes, it’s not just what is said that matters. It’s how one looks and acts in the eyes of the public. While previous presidential “debates” (which really weren’t debates or even the presidential candidates really speaking at once) and conflicts were hosted by either the written words or voice-only radio broadcasts, the first ever television debate showed (albeit in black and white) the American people the true “colors” of the two candidates that were quarreling over who would sit in the chair that controlled the Land of Freedom.
And, although the people of America at this time did not know this at this time, which man would receive the destiny of being assassinated. But, that’s just a theory. Perhaps Lee Harvey Oswald, or whoever the conspiracy theorists out there wish to believe was truly behind JFK’s assassination, wouldn’t have had quite the same motive or setting had Nixon been elected. Perhaps Nixon, if voted into office, wouldn’t have ever been in the same state as Harvey Oswald. Or, maybe the insane man would have kept true to his fate and attempted assassination anyways. We will never know. But that’s the thing about alternate history; although interesting, it can never be proven.
The uncolored picture of television showed the Americans a falsified and perceived image of both presidential candidates. Kennedy, perhaps on of the sickest men to ever take office, appeared tan, healthy and charismatic. A man without illnesses, which was far from the case. Nixon, on the other hand, looked unkempt, unhealthy and tense while speaking. Pale in comparison to the man standing next to him. Kennedy appeared aggressive with his ideals and Democratic basis, standing relaxed and unmoved by Nixon’s rebuttles. Nixon, seemingly sweating and tensed by the presence of cameras and the questions presented by candidate Kennedy and the host of the debate.
Nixon would eventually run again for president in 1968, without a televised presidential broadcast. On Sept. 14, 1971, Nixon said, “Remember, even on the first debate. We made the mistake of not — for that one. Well, or — we got prepared. Worked like hell.” With the utter failure of his side of the debate in 1960, eight years before, behind him, Richard Nixon refused to allow the mistake to happen again. He refused to participate in a debate against democratic candidates Hubert Humphrey in 1968 and George McGovern in 1972. No presidential debate would occur again until Ford vs. Carter after Nixon’s resignation, 16 years after the very first.
Here it is, from the JFK Library, the very first presidential debate (the first of four between future 35th President John Fitzgerald Kennedy and future 37th President Richard Milhous Nixon). Film footage copyrighted by the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation.
Now, for comparison, if you’d like to see how these debates have changed, here is the first presidential debate from the most recent election, between Republican candidate and former Massachusetts governor Willard Mitt Romney and Democratic reelection candidate and former Illinois senator Barack Hussein Obama II.
The topics on the minds of the American people haven’t seemed to change much in the fifty two years since the first debate between Nixon and Kennedy, and the idea of the debate itself remains the same.