The Habit of Discussion and Debate: On
the Way to Becoming a Senator
Discussion, the modern representation of Plato's dialectical method, is a process of seeking answers to lead to more significant questions. This pattern of logical disputation operated as a method of inquiry which eventually led either to the making of choices, or the adoption of a position. The next logical extension was debating, the process of testing one's position by argumentation and rebuttal.
As they gathered at the family dinner table, the Kennedy children were encouraged to participate in discussions on historical subjects and occasionally on contemporary issues. The pattern of discussion continued with John Kennedy into his early adulthood.
During his junior and senior years at Harvard he often engaged in strong discussions with friends about isolationism, neutrality, and preparedness. Later, newly graduated, fresh from his success with Why England Slept, Kennedy engaged in public interviews and discussions about preparedness for war, especially during his residency at Stanford University. 1 While serving in the navy at Tulagi, in the South Pacific, Lieutenant Kennedy was known as an enthusiastic participant in political discussions. And, after the war, Joseph Healey described the twenty-eight year old Kennedy: "I think that the nature of public issues fascinated him intellectually." 2
Mark Dalton observed that Kennedy "was an excellent debater but not an excellent orator" while he was in Congress. 3 Kennedy debated Richard Nixon in 1947, at McKeesport, Pennsylvania; thirteen years before their televised presidential debates. He engaged Norman Thomas in debate at a Harvard Law School Forum in 1949, and he debated Henry Cabot Lodge when he challenged him for the senatorial seat in 1952. His first televised debate was with Hubert Humphrey during the West Virginia primary in 1960.