Today In History: The First Ever Televised Presidential Debate

Today In History |

September 26, 1960


Today in 1960, America watched its first presidential debate on television. The debate was between Democratic senator John F. Kennedy and vice president Richard Nixon. They debated in a television studio in Chicago, discussing domestic policy. The debate is famous not only as the first Americans watched, but also for its influence on how the game of politics would be played from then on.

Nixon is generally believed to have lost the debate. Famously, it is thought that viewers saw Kennedy more favorably because he held up better in the camera's eye. Unlike Nixon, Kennedy consented to wear makeup. Nixon was also visibly exhausted from hard campaigning, which he continued up until mere hours before the debate began. Additionally, Nixon had only partially recovered from a bout of illness that landed him in the hospital.

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A visibly sweating, wan, stubbly Nixon also wore a suit that was roughly the same shade as the studio background, making him appear to blend in. He was very obviously overshadowed by the well-rested, well-groomed, tan Kennedy. It's often said that people who listened to the debate on the radio believed that Nixon had emerged the victor, though this has been disputed by historians.

Subsequent debates swung more favorably towards Nixon, but it was not enough to give him the presidency. Kennedy beat him, though by one of the narrowest margins in history.

Nixon made a successful presidential bid in 1968. He chose not to debate his opponent, vice president Hubert Humphrey. Televised debates are now an institution in American politics.

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Matt lives in Southern California. He is interested in politics, history, literature and the natural world.