Throughout history, there have been countless high-profile debates that exemplify the innovation and mastery of discourse rhetoric. These iconic volleys encapsulate some of the most significant issues and conflicts in history, portraying a variety of views and interpretations that are thought-provoking and, at times, harrowing in their delivery.
Here is a summary of one such meeting, a presidential debate between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon.
Broadcasted presidential debates are hard to miss in today’s social media-driven landscape — real-time reports of debate questions, contentions, quotes, and controversies are commonplace in their ability to quickly reach a large audience.
But before the internet, there was television alone, and in 1960 the United States experienced its very first televised presidential debate: a showdown between democratic candidate John F. Kennedy and republican candidate Richard Nixon. The debate, the first of several meetings during the 1960 US presidential election, single-handedly changed the face of American politics, as it was also the first time a pair of presidential candidates met face-to-face in such a manner.
Prior to the debate, political analysts favored Nixon to dominate the debate with 9-5 odds. However, Kennedy seemed to defy these odds from the very beginning of the debate, launching into a strong opening statement in which he observed, “the question is whether the world will exist half-slave or half-free, whether it will move in the direction of freedom — in the direction we are taking — or whether it will move in the direction of slavery. I think it will depend, in great measure, on what we do here in the United States.”
Kennedy proceeded to conduct himself in a “television-friendly” calm and collected demeanor, which boded well for him against an already visibly distraught Nixon (Nixon had recently suffered from the flu and had exacerbated a knee injury upon entering the debate venue).
The debate presented a new set of variables that would become standard for succeeding televised political events, including the ways in which the candidates addressed and acknowledged both a television audience and a physically-present group of reporters. With television still a fairly new medium for entertainment and broadcast journalism, both candidates were left to experiment with ways to properly utilize it in an interactive manner. Kennedy is said to have “nailed it” in this regard, looking directly into the camera (and into the eyes of the American public). Nixon, on the other hand, mostly shifted his gaze to the reporters at the side of the venue, giving himself a submissive, distracted appearance to those watching from home.
However, when it came to argument content and substance, both candidates were “remarkably similar” in approach, discussing issues including communism, national security, and the overall future of America. What had started as a predicted one-sided battle resulted in a mostly evenly-matched contest, with Kennedy’s presentation giving him a slight edge.
Nixon improved upon his shortcomings in later debates, but Kennedy ultimately secured the presidency — a victory many historians credit to momentum established during the first debate.