Presidential Debates: A Short History Long on Influence

John F. Kennedy, left, and Richard Nixon, pose for a photo before one of the their 1960 debates.
John F. Kennedy, left, and Richard Nixon, pose for a photo before one of the their 1960 debates.

On this date in 1960, Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy participated in the first presidential general election debate.

Here are some things you may not have known about that debate and those that followed.

The famous 1858 debates between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas were held while the men were running for Senate. The formats for those debates wouldn’t be seen as television friendly today. Each candidate was allowed a one-hour opening statement, followed by an hour-and-half rebuttal, and a half-hour closing response. If it kept to schedule, the entire debate would take six hours.

By the way, Douglas was selected over Lincoln to represent Illinois in the Senate that year. The two men would be nominated for president two years later, but didn’t debate at that time. The earlier debates served to define each man’s position.

Before 1960, the only debates between presidential candidates were conducted before primary elections.

The first was a 1948 radio debate between Thomas Dewey and Harold Stassen, who were contesting the Republican Party primary in Oregon.

In 1956, Democratic candidates Adlai Stevenson and Estes Kefauver debated during the candidate-selection process.

In 1960, Richard Nixon, who was Vice President under Dwight Eisenhower, and John F. Kennedy, who was finishing up his first term as U.S. Senator from Massachusetts, met in a series of four debates.

Each candidate had reasons to participate: Kennedy was relatively inexperienced and needed the nationwide exposure the debates offered.

Nixon, meanwhile, was reeling from an off-the-cuff remark by Eisenhower.

A reporter from Time magazine asked Eisenhower to name a time the president heeded Nixon’s advice. Eisenhower responded by saying, “If you give me a week, I might think of one.”

Nixon also missed two weeks of the campaign while he was treated for an infected knee. And when he returned to the trail, he insisted on visiting every state, no matter if the state had few electoral votes or was hopelessly in Kennedy’s column. An example of the folly of this tactic came the weekend before the election, when Nixon spent time in Alaska, while Kennedy worked the populous states of New Jersey, Ohio, Michigan and Pennsylvania.

Nixon’s insistence on non-stop campaigning was also one of the many mistakes the candidate made on the day of the first debate.

Nixon campaigned until just a few hours before facing off against Kennedy at the studios of WBBM-TV in Chicago. He remained gaunt and pale after his hospital stay, and was fighting off a lingering case of the flu.

In addition to health issues, there were more superficial misplays as well. He chose to wear a light gray suit, which ended up blending in with the background. He declined the network’s offer of a makeup artist, instead wearing drugstore pancake makeup to cover his beard stubble. However, the makeup caused small beads of sweat resulting from the hot TV lights and the lingering flu to appear larger than they actually were.

Kennedy’s debate performance, meanwhile, may have benefitted from another type of illness. The Democrat’s tanned appearance may have been as a result of Addison’s disease, an endocrine disorder that can cause hyperpigmentation.

The widely believed idea that television viewers vastly preferred Kennedy’s performance, while radio listeners favored Nixon, is likely exaggerated.

According to one study, the sample size of the television audience in the only survey, is unknown. Television was also in only 87 percent of American homes at the time, and the remaining 13 percent tended to be rural and western communities that favored Nixon.

Whether or not that legend is true, what remains is that Kennedy went from a slight deficit to a slight lead over Nixon after the first debate. Nixon responded by gaining his lost weight, wearing TV makeup and working on his camera technique. Political observers of the time say Nixon won the second and third debates and the fourth was a draw.

Kennedy would go on to defeat Nixon in the election by less than 100 electoral votes and about 200,000 popular votes.

Despite the fact that debates helped shape the outcome of the 1960 election, there wasn’t another presidential debate until 1976.

Since then, there have been either two or three debates between presidential candidates, and one between vice presidential candidates (with the exception of 1980, when the vice presidential debate was canceled).

This year’s first debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump is scheduled for tonight at 6 o’clock Pacific time, which is 9 p.m. on the East Coast.

Our question: What year saw the only debates involving three candidates on stage at the same time?

Today is European Day of Languages, Dominion Day in New Zealand, and Flag Day in Ecuador.

It’s unofficially National Pancake Day, Lumberjack Day and Shamu the Whale Day.

It’s the birthday of writer T.S. Eliot, who was born in 1888; composer George Gershwin, who was born in 1898; and tennis player Serena Williams, who is 35 today.

This week in 1960, the top song in the U.S. was “My Heart Has a Mind of Its Own” by Connie Francis.

The No. 1 movie was “The Dark at the Top of the Stairs,” while the novel “Hawaii” by James Michener topped the New York Times Bestsellers list.

Weekly question

Who was the third candidate in 1980, whose presence resulted in the cancelation of one presidential debate, and the only vice presidential debate?


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