AllPolitics - Debates '96

1960 Presidential Debates


1960 Debate

For the first time, the nominees of the two major parties met to debate during a general election. Congress suspended the equal time provision of the Federal Communications Act of 1934, and both Vice President Richard Nixon (R) and Sen. John Kennedy (D-Mass.) believed they had something to gain by debating. (928K QuickTime movie)

There were a total of four debates, which still stands as the record number for a general election, and the major theme was the threat of global communism. There were no Vice Presidential debates in 1960.

What everyone remembers is the first debate, where the telegenic Kennedy won the image battle over Nixon who, recovering from the flu, appeared pale and refused make-up.

P R E S I D E N T I A L  D E B A T E  # 1

Date: September 26, 1960
Location: Chicago, IL
Site: WBBM studio
Participants: John Kennedy (D), Richard Nixon (R)
Moderator: Howard K. Smith, CBS
Robert Fleming, ABC
Stuart Novins, CBS
Charles Warren, Mutual Broadcasting System
Sander Vanocur, NBC
Eight-minute opening statements, then alternating questions from panelists, with two and a half minutes to respond, then the other candidate may give a rebuttal.


The first general election presidential debate, televised or otherwise. What is most remembered and discussed is the telegenic "image" presented by Kennedy and the decidedly non-telegenic presence of Nixon. Nixon didn't wear make-up, was recovering from the flu and had lost weight, and suffered from a knee injury. He also wore a gray suit, which provided little contrast with the background set. Kennedy wore a dark suit, wore make-up (though he already looked tan), and was coached on how to sit (legs crossed) and what to do when he wasn't speaking (look at Nixon).

Kennedy was aggressive, taking the offensive to confront what was widely perceived to be his greatest weakness -- his lack of experience -- by talking about his work in the Congress.

Kennedy also stated in his opening statement that "I don't believe in big government, but I believe in effective government action."

Nixon blamed the country's economic and other problems on Democratic President Truman's administration and argued that things were much improved under the outgoing Republican administration of Eisenhower.

One study concluded that those who heard the debate on the radio thought the contest to be a draw, while those who watched the broadcast thought Kennedy the clear winner. However, a study conducted recently has challenged this assumption. Still, The New York Times declared that "on sound points of argument, Nixon probably took most of the honors."

P R E S I D E N T I A L  D E B A T E  # 2

Date: October 7, 1960
Location: Washington, DC
Site: NBC Studio
Participants: John Kennedy (D), Richard Nixon (R)
Moderator: Frank McGee, NBC
Paul Niven, CBS
Edward Morgan, ABC
Alvin Spivak, UPI
Harold Levy, Newsweek
Questions from panelists, other candidate may comment or rebut.


Nixon learned from the mistakes he made in Chicago and adopted a more telegenic image (dark suit, make-up). Nixon also took a much more aggressive stance in the remaining debates, abandoning the genteel style he tried in the first debate.

The most heated exchange was about Quemoy and Matsu, two Taiwan-controlled islands just miles off the Chinese mainland. Kennedy said that the line of defense in the Far East should be drawn at Taiwan. Nixon argued that these two islands should be where the West draws the line against Communism, and accused Kennedy of "woolly thinking."

These two islands, Cuba and the Cold War in general, would be the focus of the next two debates.

P R E S I D E N T I A L  D E B A T E  # 3

Date: October 13, 1960
Location: Nixon in Hollywood, Kennedy in New York City
Site: ABC Studios, Hollywood & New York
Participants: John Kennedy (D), Richard Nixon (R)
Moderator: Bill Shadel, ABC
Charles Von Fremd, CBS
Frank McGee, NBC
Roscoe Drummond, New York Herald Tribune
Douglass Cater, Reporter Magazine
Panelists question candidates, candidate who is not asked the question given time to respond before the next question is asked.


After the second debate, Nixon campaigned on the theme that Kennedy would let Communists take the islands of Quemoy and Matsu. Most the third debate focused on these islands.

P R E S I D E N T I A L  D E B A T E  # 4

Date: October 21, 1960
Location: ABC Studios
Site: New York
Participants: John Kennedy (D), Richard Nixon (R)
Moderator: Quincy Howe, ABC
John Edwards, ABC
Walter Cronkite, CBS
Frank Singiser, Mutual Broadcasting System
John Chancellor, NBC
Eight-minute opening statement, followed by alternating questions from panelists, with the other candidate given an opportunity to respond. Three minutes for closing statement.


The news out of the fourth debate was Cuba, and Kennedy's day-before statement that the U.S. government should support "non-Batista democratic anti-Castro forces in exile ... who offer eventual hope of overthrowing Castro." Nixon called Kennedy's plan "dangerously irresponsible" but actually supported the idea in private. The issue helped Kennedy look tougher on Cuba than Nixon. The remainder of the debate was a reiteration of previous themes.

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