The Kennedy presidency is one remembered as transformative and transcendent, but that’s not necessarily the way things were unfolding in 1960. In fact, Kennedy was typically shown to be falling behind Nixon at every juncture until the candidates agreed to a televised debate during election season. It was the first such televised debate ever held between two presidential candidates, and it arguably changed the course of the election, the media, and the world, for good. There are several reasons for this.
1. Richard Nixon Looked Flustered
If one closes their eyes and simply listens to Richard Nixon speak during the debate, they might believe he won the debate or at least presented a strong showing. If they open their eyes, however, they see a Richard Nixon that is sweaty, contemptuous, and putting in a meager performance at best. Kennedy, meanwhile, remained cool and collected, ready to respond and eager to discuss his plans. To say Nixon was woefully unprepared for the impact and scope of television would be an understatement.
2. The Media Could Control the Conversation
With everyone held to account not only by the sound of their voices, but the impact of their appearance, the media could more easily control the conversation and guide the campaign agenda. This power has been leveraged in every election since, with the media focusing on their own “narrative.”
3. No Candidate Could Ignore Television Any Longer
Finally, television and debates became a must-have part of every campaign following Kennedy-Nixon. Today, more than half a century later, debates are federally regulated and meticulously prepared for. Candidates can no longer ignore the impact of mass media, televised debate, and the broader campaign narrative.