The Nixon-Kennedy Debates: A Look at the Myth


By Ron Simon

There has been a lot of media interest in the fiftieth anniversary of the Kennedy-Nixon debates, the first of which (from a total of four) took place on September 26, 1960. I am surprised that more and more commentators think the debates were the precursor of reality TV. In The First Kennedy-Nixon Debate: Are We Better Off than 50 Years Ago Walter Shapiro suggests that the county might have been better off if the debates didn’t happen. As I first wrote two years ago, I think many historians are missing the meaning of the debates, confusing style with substance.

Over the past few days, I have noticed an uptick in searches for the Kennedy-Nixon debates on YouTube, which is a very good thing. So much has been written about those 1960 encounters that is soaked in myth or just plain wrongheaded. Those debates should be experienced first, before reading any warmed-over analysis.

The central myth we should expose is that the majority of the audience who heard the first debate on radio thought Nixon won; those who watched on television were so seduced by the visual that they gave the nod to Kennedy. This claim, repeated in every media book, is based on a poll conducted by Sindlinger and Company, which has now been questioned on many fronts. Most of their small sample that listened on the radio were from Republican areas and probably predisposed to think favorably of Nixon. It wasn't that the radio listeners were less biased in evaluating the debate. And you could argue that radio has its own seductions. The deeper resonant voice of Nixon perhaps sounded more authoritative on radio, compared to the higher-pitched timber of Kennedy.

We have heard over and over that the audience judged the candidates mostly by stylistic considerations, and the debate now seems like a precursor to Project Runway. Kennedy, tanned in his dark suit, has now morphed into a "glam" matinee idol, while Nixon with his five o'clock shadow was recently described by a national publication as looking "like he just crawled out of a dumpster." This contemporary hyperbole belittles the very real substance of the dialogue. Watch this clip from the first debate on September 26, 1960, and you will hear how questions of experience and achievement, so relevant today, challenged both candidates.

The sixty million-plus audience for the first confrontation carried over for the three remaining debates. The haggard, gray-suited Nixon changed his wardrobe for subsequent telecasts, although most of the commentary still concentrates on the fashion disaster that was the opening debate in Chicago. Although obscure subjects like the protection of Quemoy and Matsu cropped up in the conversation, the subtext remained judgment and experience. You will see from this final debate on October 21 in New York that the dialogue became crisper and more combative, especially from Nixon. But the younger Kennedy was able to counterattack, staying on his message of the problematic future.

Many of the comments on YouTube go beyond the sartorial and stress the direct connection to the Obama-McCain debates. For many, the moral of the Kennedy-Nixon debates is that style trumps substance. But maybe a fresh look at the video belies that often repeated canard.

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