Sunday, July 25, 2010

Two Minutes of History: The Great Debates, 1960:



In 1960 John F Kennedy, aged 42, ran for President of the US against the then Vice President Richard Nixon. Kennedy, a Democrat, was dogged by criticisms that he was too young and inexperienced. He had seen action as a PT boat skipper in WW2, following which he served as the Massachusetts representative to Congress between 1947 and 1953 and as a member of the US Senate between 1953 and 1960. Nixon was aged 47, had entered the US House of Representatives in 1946, the Senate in 1950 and had been Eisenhower’s Vice President between 1953 and 1960.


Nixon accepted Kennedy’s challenge to 4 televised debates, the first time such debates had ever been held and televised. Known as the “Great Debates”, the first focused on domestic issues and took place on 26 September 1960. It was the first time that the voters were able to see their candidates in competition.

Nixon had spent two weeks in hospital in August because of a serious knee injury. By the time of the debates, he was still drawn, underweight and with poor skin pallor. His shirt was ill fitting and he declined makeup, notwithstanding that black and white television emphasised his perpetual 5.00 o’clock shadow. Kennedy on the other hand was well rested, confident and tanned, having spent the previous two weeks campaigning in sunny California. Nixon later wrote “ I had never seen him looking so fit.”

In reality, the candidates were evenly matched. Those who listened to the first debate on radio gave it to Nixon. Those who watched it on TV responded differently. They saw Kennedy speak smoothly and confidently. He was handsome and charismatic, unlike Nixon who looked sickly and less comfortable than Kennedy. Kennedy appeared well informed and capable, thereby addressing concerns of youth and inexperience.  Kennedy looked directly to the camera and spoke to the viewers, Nixon frequently spoke to the journalists in the room and not to the camera.  At one stage the camera focused on Kennedy smiling at a point made by Nixon.


See some of the debates at:

80 million people watched the first debate. Audience studies showed that unlike the radio listeners (a smaller audience), the television viewers felt that Kennedy had won the debate by a very large margin. Their focus had been on what they saw, not what they had heard. (There was no worm on screen then either).

After the first debate, Kennedy moved from slight deficit into a slight lead over Nixon.

For the following debates Nixon regained his lost weight, wore makeup, and appeared more forceful than in the first debate. Political observers at the time felt that Kennedy won the first debate, that Nixon won the next two and that the third was drawn. However, 20 million less viewers watched the debates after the first.


Kennedy won the election by one of the narrowest margins in history, 49.7% of the popular vote against 49.6%.

Some political analysts maintain that the debates did not change or influence voting intentions, that they merely served to solidify previously existing allegiances and intentions. As against that, at election time more than half of the voters polled reported that the Great Debates had influenced their opinion. 6% stated that their votes were on the basis of the Great Debates alone.

There is no doubt that the Debates assisted Kennedy, especially in dispelling the criticism that he was too young and inexperienced. Whether the Debates were a turning point is a moot point in the bigger picture. Not long after the American experience, Germany, Sweden, Finland, Italy and Japan followed with their own debates between contenders. The 1960 Presidential debates also created a precedent in American politics. Although Nixon refused to debate in 1968 and 1972, Federal laws were passed requiring equal air-time for candidates.

Most importantly, the 1960 debates awakened the candidates and campaign managers to the importance of television and the projection of an image to the voters. From 1960 television became the most important medium of political communication, displacing radio and newspapers. This in turn has generated large scale fundraising for paid political advertising on television. Candidates now also need a certain level of media skill, if not naturally then by coaching and instruction.

Today there is an emerging awareness of the potential of a new medium, much like the emerging awareness of television in 1960. That new medium is the Internet. Where that will lead and in what ways it can be exploited for lections remains to be seen, but it does bring to mind the words of Clarence Darrow (often mistakenly attributed to Charles Darwin): ‘It is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change.’


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