“Kennedy ran for president not just as a politician, but as a leading man. In the debates as in the overall campaign, this positioning paid off. Presumed stardom led to genuine stardom.”—Alan Schroeder
The first televised presidential debate took place, of course, in 1960 pitting John F. Kennedy against Richard Nixon. Their first debate has become historic if not almost mythological in its importance and its legacy for the modern presidential campaign. In his introduction to Presidential Debates: Risky Business on the Campaign Trail, Alan Schroeder takes us behind the scenes of that now-legendary debate.
Below, we’ve also included an excerpt from later in the book in which Schroeder analyzes the performances of Kennedy and Nixon. In assessing the performance of JFK, Schroeder writes, “Kennedy ran for president not just as a politician, but as a leading man. In the debates as in the overall campaign, this positioning paid off. Presumed stardom led to genuine stardom.”
Nixon had actually very skillfully used television to his advantage while vice-president. His famous “Checkers” speech and the “kitchen debate” with Khrushchev showed his ability to to command the media spotlight. While fatigue and illness certainly played a part in Nixon’s weak performance, it can also be attributed to his lack of understanding about the nature of the debate. Schroeder explains, “Nixon had fundamentally misconceived the event, viewing it as a rhetorical exercise, while Kennedy approached it as a television show.”
In addition to the excerpt below, we also offer a clip from that first debate: