The First Debate over the Debates: How Kennedy and Nixon Negotiated the 1960 Presidential Debates

By Self, John W. | Presidential Studies Quarterly, June 2005 | Go to article overview

The First Debate over the Debates: How Kennedy and Nixon Negotiated the 1960 Presidential Debates


Self, John W., Presidential Studies Quarterly


On September 20, 2004, Mary Beth Cahill of the Kerry campaign and Ken Mehlman of the Bush campaign signed a 32-page Memorandum of Understanding that set forth the rules for the 2004 presidential debates. When the memorandum was made public, it was a new twist on a forty-year history of presidential debate negotiation. The memorandum was the product of a negotiation process largely unknown to the public. This tradition of hidden pre-debate negotiations, however, is not new. The act of negotiating modern political debates started during the 1960 campaign and those negotiations became a boilerplate for future campaigns.

It can be said without much reservation that the 1960 debates between John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon were the most significant, groundbreaking American political campaign events of the twentieth century. Ashmore contended that the debates marked "a final shift in American political technique" (Mazo et al. 1962, 1). Windt (1994) argued that these debates "established both the precedent and format for subsequent debates" (1994, 1). Two presidential candidates charged into relatively uncharted political waters by agreeing to go on live television, together, without scripts or notes. This was a radical departure from typical presidential campaigning. There had been political debates before 1960, but none had been televised nationally.

Both Nixon and Kennedy had participated in political debates in their careers previously. Nixon had successfully debated Jerry Voorhis in his run for the House in 1946 and Kennedy's triumph in the 1960 West Virginia presidential primary is credited, in large part, to his victory over Hubert Humphrey in their debate (Mazo et al. 1962; Windt 1994). With the exception of primary debates in 1948 (Dewey-Stassen), 1956 (Stevenson-Kefauver), and 1960, presidential candidates did not square off in such a forum. However, there were some important differences between Nixon's and Kennedy's debate experiences and the challenge they faced together for the first time on September 26, 1960.

First, neither candidate, nor any candidates before them, had ever debated in front of a national television audience. It was estimated that over 100 million viewers watched some or all of the four televised debates (Mickelson 1972). No political candidate had ever been able to address so many potential voters in one event before. The television age of politics was indeed born.

Second, here was a new challenge for the person running for president of the United States: each had to attack his opponent and refute his arguments and policies while the opponent was standing right next to him and he had to look presidential while doing it.

Finally, agreeing to debate each other on national television was the biggest risk either of them took in a campaign. As vice president, Nixon was the better known of the two candidates. He took a great risk by sharing a stage with Kennedy. Many advised Nixon against debating, including his boss, President Eisenhower (Mazo et al. 1962). In his memoirs, Nixon (1978) explained that he felt like he had no other option but to debate: "But there was no way I could refuse to debate without having Kennedy and the media turn my refusal into a central campaign issue. The question we faced was not whether to debate, but how to arrange the debates so as to give Kennedy the least possible advantage" (1978, 217).

Kennedy understandably wanted as many face-to-face meetings with Nixon as possible. However, there was still a considerable risk for Kennedy because if he were to do poorly, it could not only ruin his bid for the White House, it could potentially end his political career, a true threat for such a young politician. These were considerable risks, especially in an election that had been predicted to be close from the very beginning. This essay explores the chronology of the negotiations that made it possible for these historic debates to occur. …

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