Saturday, September 26, 2015

Today in American History 09/26/1969: First Televised Presidential Debate - Nixon and Kennedy

Today in American History, 09/26/1960, John Kennedy and Richard Nixon engaged in the first televised presidential debate in history.  It can be said that television has changed the world, and can be seen as a window into an opiate view of American and world cultures.  Our language and day-to-day activities have been altered because of the technology as we have all been subject to periods of being "couch potatoes" and scheduling our time around what time shows such a "The Andy Griffith Show", the season premier of "The Sopranos" or the finales of shows like "M*A*S*H" or "Seinfeld".  We were all glued to our televisions during events such as the first space shuttle launch, news coverage of the Oklahoma City Bombing and 9/11 and scheduled events such as the Olympics.  And who can argue the impact of television on professional sporting events such as The Super Bowl (go ahead, NFL, sue me).  

Kennedy Nixon Debate, 09/26/1960

With all of those things combined, no one can say that television has not influenced and impacted the lives of everyone in the world in an irreversible and undeniable way.  An argument can be made that it is leading to the downfall of society (see MTV and it's introduction of reality TV as examples) or that it has helped to develop culture and learning (see Sesame Street and PBS as examples).  One of the biggest things that has been influenced (for better or worse) in American is our politics.  And, today in history in 1960, for the first time in history, Americans were able to see and hear their candidates debate on television.  While this was not the first time a President on television -- (President Theodore Roosevelt appeared on television in 1939 at the World's Fair and President Harry Truman gave the first Presidential address in 1947 on television) -- this was the first time two candidates debated and gave the public the opportunity to form an indelible impression of their candidates based on how they looked while they discussed the topics of the day.  The two major party candidates met in Chicago and the broadcast was carried on all the major stations.  This debate is still considered to be the highest rated debate in history based in Nielson's ratings, although it did not reach nearly the number of people the debates reach today.  

Click below to watch the debate:

The debate lasted for one hour and it delivered interesting results.  It was the prevailing opinion that to those who watched it on television, the younger and more charismatic John Kennedy won the debate easily.  While those who listened to the debate on the traditional medium, radio, would have thought that Richard Nixon won.  This alone is a fascinating commentary on the power of television.  Most folks said that in comparison to Kennedy, Nixon seemed nervous and unprepared.  And some said that Nixon's decision to wear make up impacted the public's perception of him.

There were two other televised debates, and Nixon scored much higher in those debates but was still slated as losing them in the eye of the public.  And in this case, it was truly the eye -- and not the ear that mattered -- because in November of 1960 John F. Kennedy won 49.7% of the popular vote and edged Richard Nixon for the Presidency of the United States of America.  While it is the closest popular vote in history (49.7 to 49.6), It is not an uncommon belief that Kennedy's visual power on television was the deciding factor in the election.  It is worth noting that because of the results, in 1964, 1968 and 1972 at least one of the candidates refused to debate on television and as a result, and as only carried on radio.  It was not until 1976 when Jimmy Carter debated Gerald Ford, did the debates return to television and have been televised every election since.

It is worth nothing that the format of the debates is very much in the public eye today, as only Republicans and Democrats are eligible to be included in the debates.  There is a strong movement afoot led by Gary Johnson who seeks to change the rules so that leading alternate party candidates would be allowed to debate on a national stage.

Bruce holds a degree in Computer Science from Temple University, a Graduate Certificate in Biblical History from Liberty University and is working towards a Masters Degree in American History at American Public University.  He has worked in educational and technology for over 18 years, specializes in building infrastructures for schools that work to support the mission of technology in education in the classroom.  He also has served as a classroom teacher in Computer Science, History and English classes.  

Bruce is the author of five books: Sands of TimeTowering Pines Volume One:Room 509The Star of ChristmasPhiladelphia Story: A Lance Carter Detective Novel and The Insider's Story: A Lance Carter Detective Novel -- with a new book, Learn the Basics: Digital Forensics, due soon. 

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