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Kennedy-Nixon Debates

Television, particularly the first televised presidential debates in history, has been widely credited with helping John F. Kennedy squeak out a victory over Richard Nixon in the 1960 election. The story of the 1960 Kennedy-Nixon debates, and the momentous change in politics which they inaugurated, is told in a new starting point. In the debates, Kennedy's vigorous appearance contrasted with Nixon's somewhat haggard look and "5 o'clock shadow." But more than that, Kennedy seems to have understood the new medium better, talking directly to voters rather than engaging in traditional debate tactics.

The transcripts of these four debates and many other 1960 campaign appearances are available in a Congressional report entitled The Joint Appearances of Senator John F. Kennedy and Vice President Richard M. Nixon Presidential Campaign of 1960, now available online at the MFF. The transcripts of course only capture a portion of the dynamic of the debates, as shown by the fact that radio listeners thought Nixon had won the first debate, while TV viewers overwhelmingly picked Kennedy. Videotaped opening statements of the two candidates are available on the starting points page as well.

Author Theodore White captured the political sea change brought about by the technology of television:

"What the TV debates did was to generalize this tribal sense of participation, this emotional judgment of the leader, from the few to the multitude." Nixon's running mate was more practical and blunt, saying of Nixon right after the first debate: "That son of a bitch just lost the election."

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