Becoming JFK: A Profile in Communication

By Vito N. Silvestri | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 10
The Presidential Campaign, Part II: The
First Televised Debates

The televised Nixon-Kennedy debates remain the hallmark of the 1960 campaign. By 1960, 80 percent of American households owned television sets, representing a major change in the American culture that had developed during the decade of the fifties.

Television, even in its most fledgling stage, had proven influential in politics and even more notably on political figures. Truman's Inauguration in 1948 was the first to be presented on television. Schoolchildren and townspeople viewed the event in cities and towns throughout the United States, around sets placed in auditoriums and other public places. Television dealers showcased the historic event, to demonstrate the value of the product. In 1952, marking the first time television became prominent in a presidential campaign, Richard Nixon made the "Checkers" speech and proved that television could change his image from alleged embezzler to political martyr. In the same campaign, Adlai Stevenson communicated a personal warmth on television that helped to transcend his intellectual "egghead" image. Eisenhower learned to use television, coached by Robert Montgomery, actor and director of live television dramas. In 1954, television helped to change the perception of Senator Joseph McCarthy, crusader against Communists, to that of a strange, intense, uncomfortable personality. 1 In 1956, Kennedy made his "national debut" on television when he appeared at the Democratic convention. His telegenic appeal for the American public helped increase his visibility throughout the nation. In 1959, Nixon again scored on television with his impromptu "debate" about the American system of life and government with Premier Nikita Khrushchev at a kitchen exhibition in Moscow, which increased his reputation as a debater.

The four debates were scheduled beginning September 26, about a week apart until the final one, October 21. These were not debates as traditionally known and practiced in the United States, nor did they resemble the

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