Millions of Americans tuned in for a real "TV first" this week in 1960. They watched a debate by the two major presidential candidates running for president in 1960.
Who won? Did the debates impact the vote?
Senator Kennedy won by 114,000 votes out of 70 million cast that day. It was 49.72% vs 49.55%.
The conventional wisdom is that JFK won "the video" and Nixon won "the audio".
I've watched these debates and give both guys good grades on their answers. It's true that Nixon was ill in the first debate and it showed. However, he still gave good answers. Nixon did not look as telegenic as JFK but his answers were very cogent.
I also thought that the reporters were very serious, a statement about the media before style took over substance.
W. J. Campbell just wrote on 'Media Myth Alert" that the narrative is dead wrong about those debates:
"The myth holds that people who watched the debate on television thought that Senator John F. Kennedy won; those who listened on radio thought Vice President Richard Nixon had the best of it. The myth was long ago debunked by scholars David L. Vancil and Sue D. Pendell, in an article in Central States Speech Journal. They noted that reports of viewer-listener disagreement typically were anecdotal, and the few surveys that hinted at a viewer-listener disconnect were too small and unrepresentative by which to make confident judgments."
Again, your guess is as good as mine. It's like losing the pennant by one game and arguing about what "one game" made the difference.
What impact did it have?
President Kennedy was reminded of all of his "tough talk" about Cuba when he fumbled The Bay of Pigs in the first few months of 1961. JFK hit the Eisenhower administration very hard about the growing communist menace in Cuba. His debate comments actually had an impact on many Cubans, like my father, who were following the debates by shortwave radio.
We did not have another televised debate until 1976 when Governor Carter challenged President Ford. You may remember that President Ford issued a "debate challenge" during his convention speech. Governor Carter accepted even though he had a huge lead at the time.
What do we remember from presidential debates? It amazes me how little the actual presidency has to do with the issues debated. Vietnam was not an issue in the Kennedy-Nixon debates but it would become the issue of the 1960's.
Civil rights was discussed but nothing really happened until President Johnson used his legislative skills to pass important laws. None of that was really mentioned in those 1960 debates.
I guess that debates are important and we should continue the tradition. However, the reality of the presidency often overwhelms campaign promises or 'tough talk" at the debates.
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