We Learned the Wrong Lesson from the JFK-Nixon Debates

With summer officially behind us, the fall campaign season is shifting into high gear. Over the next few weeks, in addition to the usual flurry of political ads, rallies and newspaper stories, we also will have an opportunity to see candidates square off against their opponents in campaign debates.

But how much do debates really tell us about how well a candidate will perform in office?

Former President George H. W. Bush saw no connection between being a good debater and a good president.

“You can have a good president that might not be the best in the top of his game in a staged debate,” he told Jim Lehrer for a PBS series on the role of debates in presidential elections. “But maybe he can do it quietly, maybe he can do it without having a hair part and make-up just right and a smile at the right time.”

Former President Clinton, in another interview for the PBS series, said presidential debates are an important component of the democratic process, but he also acknowledged their shortcomings.

“They don’t test all the skills,” he said. “They don’t really show whether you’re a good decision maker, although they show whether you can understand a situation in a hurry and respond to it, particularly if there’s a surprise question or, you know, a surprise development in the kind of the chemistry of the players. They don’t show whether you’re good at putting together a team and carrying out a plan, but they do give people a feel for what kind of leader the debater would be, how much the person knows, and generally how they approach the whole idea of being president.”

Bush and Clinton each took part in presidential debates, which are conducted every four years under the auspices of the Commission on Presidential Debates. The commission was established in 1987 to ensure that debates remained a permanent part of the nation’s presidential election process.

The most well-known presidential debate, however, took place long before the commission was established. Fifty years ago, on September 26, 1960, John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon participated in the nation’s first live televised presidential debate. Not only was the event a historic first, but over years it has come to be regarded as a turning point in media and politics because of Kennedy’s ability to use the relatively new medium of television to increase his appeal and because of Nixon’s apparent lack of recognition of the impact of a candidate’s appearance.

A popular theory about this debate is that those who listened to the exchange on radio thought Nixon had won, while those who watched it on TV gave the nod to Kennedy. I decided to put the theory to a test this summer while I was teaching a media and elections course at John Cabot University in Rome, Italy. My students, who were young and from five different countries, entered the course with little if any knowledge of America’s 1960 presidential campaign. I played a few minutes of audio from the debate and asked them to assess the performances of the two candidates. Then I played a few more minutes with both video and audio. Surprisingly, they felt the candidates were pretty evenly matched in both settings. And I must admit, after having heard and read so much about Nixon’s five o-clock shadow and sweaty brow, I expected him to look much worse than what I saw.

Appearances aside, 50 years after the historic telecast, legitimate questions are being raised about the debate and its ultimate impact on the outcome of the race, which Kennedy won by a narrow margin. Two University of Illinois professors, interviewed recently by The News-Gazette of Champaign, said no tangible evidence has ever been presented to support the widely accepted theory that radio listeners felt Nixon won the debate.

They also noted that nine out of ten U.S. households had televisions at the time, so there were more people watching the debate on TV than listening to it on radio.

“The areas of the country that did not have television also happen to be the areas of the country where a Catholic candidate is going to have a tough time simply because the natural support of voters was not going to be concentrated there,” Scott Althaus, an associate professor of political science and communication, told the newspaper.

“There’s not a definitive answer here,” he added, “but it certainly suggests that one possible explanation for this finding, if it was valid, was simply that the people who were listening to Nixon on the radio were not coming from the places that were going to support Kennedy.”

While it is not possible to quantify the impact the candidates’ physical appearances had at the polls that November, Nixon’s post-election observations – contained in a book he authored two years later – were quite fascinating and offered a glimpse into the direction politics and media would take in the ensuing years.

“I believe I spent too much time in the last campaign on substance and too little time on appearance,” Nixon wrote in Six Crises. “I paid too much attention to what I was going to say and too little to how I would look.”

Unfortunately, we learned the wrong lesson from the historic Kennedy-Nixon debate. We should have learned that substance should never take a back seat in campaigns and elections. Instead we have headed in an entirely different direction — as evidenced by the tone and nature of politics in the 21st Century.

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