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1960 presidential debates: staggeringly substantive and incredibly civil

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.

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

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.

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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.”

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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.