The 1960 presidential election between Senator John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts and Vice President Richard M. Nixon launched the modern political television era. Following that exciting race, which ended with Kennedy scoring a wafer thin popular vote advantage of one-tenth of one percent, the art of political campaigning would be changed forever while also becoming considerably more expensive.
There were very few televisions around when President Harry Truman scored his huge upset win over Governor Thomas E. Dewey of New York in 1948 and they were owned by the nation's more affluent citizens. Four years later the medium was in its teething stages in the political sphere. A major ad run by Republicans on behalf of General Dwight Eisenhower recited some major economic party talking points followed by the candidate appearing and stating that he intended to change all that after the election.
As incumbent President Eisenhower was in his last few months of his second term he passed along advice to his vice president that it would be foolhardy to participate in televised debates against his Democratic Party opponent. His reasoning was simple and basic. Nixon was better known nationally and had received high visibility for recent foreign junkets, notably his confrontation with Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev in 1959 in what was termed "the kitchen debate."
While Nixon at 47 was but four years older than Kennedy, the latter's exceptionally youthful appearance made the vice president appear more mature than his rival. In addition, the greater visibility Nixon had received provided a built in edge that would be jeopardized through joint appearances.
Many current observers find it confounding that Nixon relished the prospect of four nationally televised debates with Kennedy as eagerly as his lesser known opponent, but the Republican nominee believed debating skill to be an area where he held a substantial edge over his rival. Not only had Nixon been a champion debater at Whittier College; he had won scores of debate and speech competitions extending back to his Southern California boyhood.
On top of that Nixon, like certain other Washington hands, perceived Kennedy to not only be inexperienced, but something of a political lightweight. Kennedy had not achieved anything close to the kind of leadership reputation in the Senate as its majority leader, Lyndon Johnson of Texas, who served as Kennedy's running mate in the 1960 contest.
The presidential rivals had debated once before. That meeting occurred in 1947 in McKeesport, Pennsylvania, part of the Pittsburgh metropolitan area. Kennedy and Nixon were considered two of the shining freshman congressional class stars. The debate topic was the controversial and highly discussed Taft-Hartley Act, which involved labor relations. Nixon favored the legislation while staunch union advocate Kennedy opposed it.
Those who saw the debate as well as those who reported it or wrote about it later had the chance to observe a major tactical difference between the two debaters that reasserted itself in the historic meetings between the presidential aspirants of better than a decade later. As earlier noted, Nixon had an edge in formal debating. His approach was akin to a college debater seeking to score points against his rival before a team of judges.
Kennedy's manner was more folksy, delivering anecdotes and cracking jokes as he sought to make his point while seeking direct contact with his audience. The pattern of focusing strongly on his audience rather than his opponent was repeated by Kennedy in the critically important first debate held in Chicago on September 26, 1960. Nixon focused more on Kennedy and debating points than did his rival.
As a result, disparate views were held of first debate radio listeners and television viewers. Of those who heard only the voices of the candidates Nixon was the perceived winner. Of the much larger viewing audience, however, the opposite conclusion was reached as Kennedy was perceived to be much more relaxed and confident while Nixon was deemed to appear edgy.
Eisenhower's warning to Nixon bore fruit. The public perception of Nixon as a more mature and experienced presidential candidate than Kennedy dissipated in one joint appearance. The first debate was viewed by more people than any of the others and was more critical as a shaping barometer than were any subsequent meetings.
It is insightful to note that Nixon was professed to have done his best in the third debate. This was the only one of the four encounters in which the candidates were in television studios on opposite coasts, with Kennedy in New York and Nixon in Los Angeles. Nixon did not have the tempting distraction of focusing directly on a rival in the same room.