The Kennedy Style

The Nixon-Kennedy debates would forever change the way Americans chose their Presidents. 


Narrator: As he mapped out an ambitious 50-state campaign, he was challenged by his opponent, John F. Kennedy, to a series of televised debates, the first in American history. Even when hospitalized for two weeks with a knee injury, Nixon remained confident, anxious for the debates to begin, eager once again to use television to talk directly to the voters.

Herb Kaplow, NBC News: At the time, there was a feeling that this, overall, might be a mismatch. Nixon was the candidate who had more prominence, who had been a member of the House, a member of the Senate and the Vice President of the United States. Kennedy, he didn't have a particularly strong reputation in Congress. There was some feeling that he was, to some extent, a playboy, that he wasn't too serious a senator and so, I think people felt that Nixon had the edge and I think Nixon felt that he had the edge.

Howard K. Smith, Moderator: The candidates need no introduction: the Republican candidate, Vice President Richard M. Nixon and the Democratic candidate, Senator John F. Kennedy. According to the rules set by the candidates themselves each man --

Narrator: The Nixon-Kennedy debates would forever change the way Americans chose their Presidents. Political rallies and old-fashioned hand-shaking became much less important than the image on the television screen.

Mr. Rogers: You must understand that Nixon himself had said, "I don't want any makeup on for these particular debates." What I tried to explain to Dick was he has these certain characteristics of his skin where it's almost transparent. And it was a very nice thought to say, you know, "I don't want any makeup," but that he really needed to have what we would have called even an acceptable television picture. And of course, JFK, here he'd been riding in motorcades all over California with the top down. He looked like a bronze warrior when he came into Chicago. He really did.

Senator John Fitzgerald Kennedy (archival): Mr. Nixon comes out of the Republican Party. He was nominated by it. And it is a fact that through most of these last 25 years, the Republican leadership has opposed Federal aid for education, medical care for the aged.

Vice Pres. Nixon: I know what it means to be poor. I know what it means to see people who are unemployed. I know Senator Kennedy feels as deeply about these problems as I do, but our disagreement is not about the goals for America, but only about the means to reach those goals.

Narrator: The first debate was costly to Nixon. The radio audience thought he had won, but the largest television audience in history had seen the Vice President haggard and drawn and had been given its first sustained look at the Kennedy style.

Herb Klein, Nixon Press Secretary: Kennedy had a great charm for not only the voters, but also for the press.

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  • Additional funding for this program was provided by

  • NEH

  • Additional funding for this program was provided by

  • NEH