1960 presidential debates: staggeringly substantive and incredibly civil

John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum
The first 1960 presidential debate between Sen. John F. Kennedy and Vice President Richard Nixon.

With the first presidential debate less than two weeks away (here’s the schedule for all three presidential (and one vice presidential) debates, and the locations, none closer to us than Missouri) I thought I’d better start writing a preview and roundup of debate history. But after reading this excellent set-up piece by the New Yorker’s Jill Lepore, I thought I could get away with just commending that one to you and keeping my own look-back/look-ahead piece shorter.

Because of the nature of this year’s race, the 2016 edition may be the biggest deal in presidential debate history. (By the way, do not say: What about Lincoln-Douglas? They did not debate as presidential candidates. They debated in an Illinois Senate race, which Douglas won, in 1858. But Lincoln’s strong performance in those debates did add greatly to his national reputation heading into the 1860 presidential election, in which Lincoln, the Republican nominee, did beat Douglas, the Democrat and two other candidates, both southerners, as the nation careened toward civil war.)

I say this year’s debates may be the most important ever because of the nature of this year’s race, specifically the presence of Donald Trump. I make no prediction how it will go. But if the moderators can find a way to force Trump to deal with many of the falsehoods he has clung to during the campaign, and many of the issue areas where his views are incoherent or inconsistent, it will be extremely interesting to see what happens.

We’ve never had a nominee like Trump, and he will never face a bigger audience under more pressure. In saying this, I don’t mean to dismiss the importance of Hillary Clinton’s performance. But, other than the gender history that she will make just by being there, her performance will be much closer to what we are used to from past cycles.

I confess that I have been horrified to see a presidential nominee double- and triple-down on ludicrous, proven falsehoods, and seemingly pay no price for it. Maybe that will change in one of the debates. I cannot believe that the debate moderators are not thinking how they will or should handle this.

Rewatching the 1960 debates feels like time travel

The other thing I did recently (and have done for previous debate cycles since these things all became so available on the web) is rewatch the first debates ever, the Kennedy-Nixon matchup of 1960. I highly recommend the exercise, which feels like time travel.

Somehow or other, 1960 is now 56 years ago. Color television existed, but few households had it, although even in black and white the legend that Nixon looked wan and Kennedy looked tan certainly holds up.

The setting is staggeringly plain compared to anything we have today. It looks like a school gymnasium, and not a new one, with painted brick walls. The candidates are seated in plain wooden chairs and each of them wastes valuable TV time getting up and down out of the chairs and walking to the podium when it his turn to speak.

The opening statements were eight minutes each, which feels like an eternity when watched with a 21st-century attention span. The statements, and all the rest of the debates, seems staggeringly substantive, with each candidate rattling off facts and figures. There’s no sloganeering.

The most amazing thing to me, at least watching the Kennedy-Nixon debates through the prism of today’s politics, is how incredibly civil and polite the candidates were to each other. There were basically no personal attacks at all, of any sort, and a constant assertion of mutual respect. Each listens respectfully to the other. Each asserts that the other is a good person and that both want what is best for America, but that they have differences of opinion on how to bring that about. JFK favored raising the federal minimum wage from $1 and hour to $1.25. Nixon thought that was too high.

Tame and boring — but in a good way

Compared to what we’re used to today, everything about the 1960 debate seems tame and boring, but in a good way, by my lights, compared to the constant hyperbole and complete breakdown of civility we now endure.

For comparison, here’s a paragraph from the Lepore piece, in which she interviews Bob Schieffer, who moderated one of the 2008 Obama-McCain debates:

“The debate takes the form now of a thread,” Schieffer said, turning serious, when I asked him about the state of political argument. “Someone says something, and someone else says, ‘That’s stupid,’ and the next person says, ‘No, you’re stupid.’ ” Whatever’s going on, it’s getting worse.”

Of course, when the Kennedy-Nixon debates are now discussed, it’s usually to note that homely ol’ Nixon should never have agreed to debate Kennedy, who was so much handsomer, and that Nixon’s idiotic team allowed him to appear in a too-light-colored suit and without enough makeup. Please, just ask yourself, what are we saying about what our democracy is about, when we repeat this long-settled critique?

It you care to sample the first-ever televised debate, it’s on YouTube here.

C-Span has archived video of all debates going back to 1988 here.

The Commission on Presidential Debates provides transcripts for all presidential and vice presidential debates going all the way back to the first ones in 1960.

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Comments (11)

  1. Submitted by Dennis Litfin on 09/14/2016 - 11:40 am.

    Presidential debates

    should be cancelled. All they will accomplish is to further muckrake and divide. Hold the Oct. 4 Vice Presidential debate if the Media insists. Those two have not, yet, gotten into the worthless garbage that Trump and Clinton are throwing around People know whom they are going to vote for….lets get on with it…..get it over with.

    • Submitted by Terry Hayes on 09/21/2016 - 05:02 pm.

      Scared of Hillary much?

      I can’t wait for the debate. A presidential candidate vs. an orange clown.
      No contest.

  2. Submitted by Jim Million on 09/14/2016 - 12:58 pm.


    As was our overall society “staggeringly substantive and incredibly civil.”
    So, the worn out question: Do politics and law lead or follow society?

  3. Submitted by Louis Johnston on 09/14/2016 - 01:53 pm.

    Somehow or other, 1960 is now 56 years ago.

    I can’t believe it either. I was born on September 11, 1960.

  4. Submitted by Dan Kaufman on 09/14/2016 - 02:17 pm.

    Somethings never change

    I still think republicans would oppose a minimum wage of $1.25 per hour.

    • Submitted by Jim Million on 09/14/2016 - 03:00 pm.

      Absolutely would oppose,

      for the simple reason that negative adjustment would seriously reduce their own compensation.

  5. Submitted by Tom Christensen on 09/14/2016 - 03:03 pm.


    Can no longer be a civics lesson for school age children. It now has to be a respect lesson for them instead. Our politicians are only filled with disrespect and contempt because poison pill politics has been practiced so long they no longer know how to listen, agree on common ground and move on. It has become one-ups-manship and brinksmanship. This is going to be a hold your nose election.

  6. Submitted by Bill Kahn on 09/14/2016 - 03:47 pm.

    I was a toddler when the 1960 debate took place, but “homely ol’ Nixon” was reasonably popular, perhaps from being a VP under a highly popular president, and a fine manipulator of the media and the public until the extent of his treachery became apparent with exposure of the Watergate burglary cover-up. He did not lose to Kennedy by a landslide in the popular vote, although the electoral votes were certainly decisive (won’t go into the controversy there).

    The main point made about the debate that sticks in my mind was that more people who listened to it on the radio thought Nixon won and more of those who watched on television thought Kennedy won. It was the point at which pols realized that the world had changed, that the more visceral reactions to visual rather than vocal cues. I’d agree that this phenomenon did not presage the election, but it did show that looking funny is just as bad as sounding funny to many folks.

    “I confess that I have been horrified to see a presidential nominee double- and triple-down on ludicrous, proven falsehoods, and seemingly pay no price for it. Maybe that will change in one of the debates. I cannot believe that the debate moderators are not thinking how they will or should handle this.”

    Yeah, Mr. Black, but people are saying stuff, ya know, I mean believe him ’cause they’re saying it somewheres or he never would bring it up; and you can’t just ignore what people are saying. This is America and people can say whatever they want under the first amendment and until the fourth estate gets people to notice the lies and to say when stuff’s true, well, I’m just saying, ya know?

    The facts don’t matter anymore to many people for whom this is all a melodrama. They choose their villains and heroes along party lines as well as how sick to death they will get of one wrestler, errrrr, candidate or another.

    Like the first commenter, I’d like it all over with; I’d pay for it. Let’s get rid of the private money and give these folks some hoops to get public revenue to limit than nonsense.

  7. Submitted by Joel Stegner on 09/14/2016 - 06:24 pm.

    Debate – policy differences

    In 1960s, we listened carefully to what two candidates said about their visions for the future of the United States. However, the debate was won not by people’s positions, but based on appearance – JFK looked terrific, Nixon horrible. Since then, it has evolved into more of a beauty contest, although the difference between the two parties have never been greater.

    Of course, most of us don’t need debates to make up our minds. We Clinton supporters for the most part couldn’t bear the thought of Trump as President – whether it be policy or personality. I’m sure that hardcore Trump voters feel the same way. The battleground are those who don’t have strong poltical opinions, who are probably more interested in what works rather than anything else.

    These voters are not engaged in politics to really determine the sincerity of the candidates or whether what they suggest is even possible or desirable. Those people really, really need journalists to aggressively represent their interests, not substituting softball questions or hard ones and calling candidates on their misstatements – whether unintentional or blatant lies. Otherwise, thy are like boxing referees who dance around the ring, but don’t call any low blows.

  8. Submitted by Connie Sullivan on 09/14/2016 - 07:04 pm.

    presidential debates history

    Jill Lepore’s New Yorker article, which Eric links, is an eye-opener on how presidential debates have evolved, and which presidential candidates–beginning with FDR!–refused to participate. How the rules were developed, and how campaigns worked together, across the aisle, to avoid civil and substantive debates, Oxford-style, that have been proposed by the League of Women Voters and the Debate Commission, both non-partisan groups.

    As Lepore predicts, the September 26 debate between Clinton and Trump will no doubt be the most watched in a long time. I mean, can Trump actually debate at all? Or, will he be shown to be reduced to short non-sequential assertions and personal insults, a process that the New Yorker’s Calvin Trillin sent up in a hilarious satire, of a “Trumpian candidate” speaking–same current issue as the Lepore article. As Jane Austen would recommend: “Laugh at him!”

    This will be the first (and, if he doesn’t poll well, probably Trump’s only) debate where Clinton and Trump face each other, for ninety minutes. It will be, as Lepore suggests, the only time most Americans–including the deplorables, especially–will be forced to listen to the Other Side’s views. Most Hillary haters, for instance, have never actually heard her speak, and don’t know of her public service accomplishments or her proposed solutions to lots of America’s problems. It’s an historical event, for that alone. Modt Democrats have sat, appalled, in front of their TV sets as Trump uttered one of his many deplorably ugly views, and thus know him fairly well–except for those things he keeps secret, like his taxes, his so-called charitable contributions, his medical records, his net worth.

    But there are not going to be moderators like the tough ones we’ve had in the past. We may be unlucky enough to have someone who ignores Trump’s misstatements or interrupts Clinton when she tries to correct him. After all, the media are definitely holding Hillary Clinton to a higher standard, on everything, than they have held any man running for President in 2016. Matt Lauer’s example of letting Trump off easy is a national disgrace. Or, as Trump says all the time, it’s disgusting.

  9. Submitted by Max Hailperin on 09/15/2016 - 07:33 am.

    Those chairs …

    were not “plain wooden chairs.” You have sinned against modern design. They were the famous “round chair” by Hans Wegner.

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