A major political and social turning point of the 20th Century occurred on 26 September 1960, when the first televised political debate in US history was staged. It was between Senator Robert F. Kennedy and Vice President Richard M. Nixon, candidates for the upcoming Presidential Election to be held just a little over 5 weeks later.
Up until then television was considered mostly as an entertainment and advertising medium, and indeed the televising of the debate necessitated the bumping of the Andy Griffith Show – a light comedy of considerable popularity. The telecast of a political debate was breaking new ground, with some television executives dubious about the success of the idea. They need not have worried.
The debate attracted a monster audience between 65 and 70 million viewers, who watched a smooth, confident John Kennedy deliver a convincing address, whist Richard Nixon appeared anxious, ill at ease and nervous. Kennedy’s mastery of the medium resulted in an instant surge in his popularity and established an electoral lead that Nixon was not able to bridge – even though there were three more debates in the series.
Political experts generally regarded the events of 26 September to be the turning point in the election – that Kennedy won narrowly. The genie had escaped from bottle, and from then on television was regarded as one of the most important and powerful elements of an electoral campaign.
However the result so alarmed the political world that candidates avoided television debates for the next 16 years, with Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter finally appearing in front of the cameras in 1976.
Alan Schroeder, author of “Presidential Debates: 40 years of High-Risk TV”, remarked “The 1960 debates are the turning point from retail politics – glad handing and meeting everyone face to face – to the politics of mass media.”
Image: Photo of the second of the four presidential debates held during the 1960 presidential election. This debate took place in Washington D.C. at NBC’s WRC-TV studios on October 7, 1960.