On this historic day, September 26, 1960, Kennedy and Nixon faced off in the first televised presidential debate.


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American political and audiovisual history unfolded on that historic day, September 26, 1960, when Vice President Richard Nixon, a Republican from California, and Senator John F. Kennedy, a Democrat from Massachusetts, debated at television to a national audience.

The nation’s first-ever televised presidential debate took place in Chicago and aired on CBS. The candidates faced off on television three more times that year ahead of the November 8, 1960 election.

The events “changed the way presidential campaigns were conducted, as the power of television brought elections into American living rooms,” the National Constitution Center points out.

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“Debate [on Sept. 26, 1960] was watched live by 70 million Americans and made politics an electronic spectator sport,” the same source said.

“It also gave many potential voters their first chance to see real presidential candidates in a real environment, as potential leaders.”

The debate pitted two titans of American politics against each other.

Television screen image of presidential debates between Vice President Richard M. Nixon (left) and Senator John F. Kennedy as the latter makes a point.
(Getty Pictures)

Nixon was one of the most popular politicians in US history before his presidency and his reputation were shattered by the Watergate scandal in 1974.

He was Dwight Eisenhower’s running mate when the GOP easily defeated Democratic challengers in the 1952 and 1956 elections (winning 80 of a possible 96 states).

Nixon had his own landslide victories atop the ticket in 1968 and 1972 (81 of 100 states).

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JFK was a World War II hero and the most charismatic figure in Kennedy’s burgeoning political dynasty.

He proved Nixon’s most formidable enemy, handing the vice president his only major national election defeat in the 1960 presidential election.

Kennedy received 49.7% of the popular vote against 49.6% for Nixon.

The margin of victory was incredibly slim.

Kennedy received 49.7% of the popular vote against 49.6% for Nixon.

The Republican carried more states, 26 of 48 – but Kennedy won the all-important electoral vote, 303-219.

Senator John F. Kennedy (left), CBS News' Don Hewitt (center), and Vice President Richard M. Nixon (right) during the first televised presidential debate on September 26, 1960.

Senator John F. Kennedy (left), CBS News’ Don Hewitt (center), and Vice President Richard M. Nixon (right) during the first televised presidential debate on September 26, 1960.
(Photo via CBS Photo Archive/Getty Images)

Television may have been the deciding factor in Kennedy’s victory, according to many political pundits.

Kennedy’s bright, poised smile shone on black-and-white television — and viewers thought he generally looked more at ease.

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Nixon had suffered a knee injury on the campaign trail in August, which became infected and landed him in the hospital.

He “came out two weeks later, frail, pale and 20 pounds underweight,” reports History.com.

A television image, broadcast in May 1977, of US presidential candidates John F. Kennedy (1917-1963) and Richard Nixon (1913-1994) in a Chicago television studio for their September 26, 1960 debate. he live broadcast was the first televised debate of two US presidential candidates.

A television image, broadcast in May 1977, of US presidential candidates John F. Kennedy (1917-1963) and Richard Nixon (1913-1994) in a Chicago television studio for their September 26, 1960 debate. he live broadcast was the first televised debate of two US presidential candidates.
(Photo by Ernst Haas/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

He also suffered from the flu just before the debate, injured his knee entering the studio and refused to wear makeup on television.

Nixon dabbed sweat from his brow during the broadcast.

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The effect was dramatic: the vice president looked sickly and frail, while the senator appeared vibrant and healthy.

“Each spoke skillfully and presented remarkably similar programs,” writes History.com.

Vice President Nixon looked sickly and frail; Senator Kennedy looked vibrant and healthy.

“While most radio listeners called the first debate a draw or pronounced Nixon the winner, the Massachusetts senator largely won over 70 million viewers,” notes the same source.

There were no televised debates between presidential candidates in 1964, 1968 or 1972.

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President Lyndon B. Johnson refused to debate in 1964 (he won that election against GOP candidate Barry Goldwater) — while Nixon also refused to debate in the 1968 and 1972 elections, according to History.com

Debates did not resume until 1976, when then-President Gerald Ford agreed to debate with Georgia Governor Jimmy Carter.


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