55 years of presidential debates


“The finest steel has to go through the hottest fire.”

— Richard M. Nixon

“Do not pray for easy lives. Pray to be stronger men.”

— John F. Kennedy

The 2016 presidential election is still more than 13 months away and yet we’re several debates into the primary season already. If you go beyond the two major parties to the third party and independent candidates, there are already 95 declared candidates for president. Among the minor candidates there is one who wants to deploy weapons to fight crime from space, one who wants to conquer death with cybernetic enhancements, and one who served time in prison for making a bomb threat. The field also includes the founder of the McAfee antivirus company and a man who has run in every presidential election since 1988.

As colorful as the minor candidates may be, the major parties are already debating and getting the television, radio and Internet coverage from those debates. While the debates of today are major television events, complete with flashy sets and airplanes as backdrops, the very first presidential debate ever took place 55 years ago on Oct. 7, 1960. (Many think the Lincoln-Douglas debates were part of a presidential contest, but they occurred in 1858 before either man was running for the nation’s top office.)

It is famously reported that those listening to the first Nixon-Kennedy debate on the radio thought Nixon had won but those watching on television strongly favored Kennedy. It is equally believed that the television audience favored Kennedy because of his youthful, tanned appearance and because Nixon appeared unshaven and sweaty. In fact, two weeks before the debate, Nixon had told Walter Cronkite, “I can shave within 30 seconds before I go on television and still have a beard.” Chicago Mayor Richard Daley is said to have remarked, “My God, they’ve embalmed him before he even died.”

It may never be known how the election would have turned out without the debate, but the numbers don’t lie when it comes to the closeness of the contest. Kennedy bested Nixon by just 100,000 votes out of more than 68 million cast, just one 10th of 1 percent. Exit polls reveal that 6 percent of voters said they made up their minds based on the debate alone. The era of television elections had begun.

What most people don’t realize, however, is that when Richard Nixon and John Kennedy took to the stage on Oct. 7, 1960, it was not the first time they had debated one another. In fact, their first debate had occurred more than 13 years before while both men, Kennedy then 29 and Nixon then 34, were first-term congressmen — Kennedy from Massachusetts and Nixon from California.

How strange it was then, that they were invited by Rep. Frank Buchanan to the small town of McKeesport, Pennsylvania, where the members of the Chamber of Commerce saw Nixon and Kennedy debate at the Penn-McKee hotel ballroom on the subject of the Taft-Hartley Act. Nixon had been sent by Republican leadership to argue in favor of the bill. Kennedy had been sent by Democratic leadership to argue against it.

No transcript was kept of the 1947 debate and no recording was made of the event. The local newspaper reported that both men made solid points and that the debate was largely a draw. Nixon later commented that he thought he had won the debate solidly. Kennedy was not known to comment on the event publicly.

In one humorous historical twist, Kennedy and Nixon traveled together back to Washington from McKeesport on a night train. They shared a sleeper car on the return home and flipped a coin to see who would get the preferred lower bunk. Nixon won — his last victory over Jack Kennedy.


David Hejmanowski

Case Study

David Hejmanowski is the judge of the Probate/Juvenile Division of Delaware County Common Pleas Court.

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