On This Day: Kennedy and Nixon clash in first ever TV presidential debate

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On This Day: Kennedy and Nixon clash in first ever TV presidential debate
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SEPTEMBER 26, 1960: U.S. president John F Kennedy and his opponent Richard Nixon clashed in the first ever televised election debate on this day in 1960.

More than 60million Americans tuned in to watch the spectacle, which later became a routine feature during the race for the White House every four years.

Kennedy’s photogenic looks and smooth persona helped the Democrat win the debate in the eyes of most of the audience.

However, those who were listening on radio and hence could not see Nixon’s sickly complexion as he recovered from an illness, thought the Republican had the edge.

The contrasts of Kennedy and Nixon were also highlighted by the relatively new idea of personal TV ads, which are stored on the online British Pathé archive.

A relaxed-looking Kennedy spoke, with his distinctive nasal Boston accent, of “great opportunities” and a progressive social agenda for the coming decade.

Meanwhile Nixon, who sat uncomfortably perched on an old-fashioned desk, raised the fear of war and sternly spoke of “no surrender” to Soviet threats.

Two months later – following three more televised debates - Kennedy went on to defeat Nixon, who was the sitting Vice President and was initially expected to win.

TV highlighted the power of image and, among other things, ensured Kennedy’s predecessor, Dwight Eisenhower, was the last bald president and candidate.

In many ways Kennedy, along with his picture-perfect family and fashion icon wife, would become templates for future potential incumbents of the White House.

Lyndon Johnson, who took over from Kennedy following his 1963 assassination, refused to participate in any TV debates during the election the following year.

It was not until the 1976 presidency race that the second series of televised contests – this time between incumbent Gerald Ford and Democratic challenger Jimmy Carter.


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Again it had a key impact on the election and helped lose it for Ford after he made a major blunder by saying there was “no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe”.

In 1980, the debates proved even more crucial to helping the eventual victor after former Hollywood star Ronald Reagan wowed viewers with polished performances.

TV debates between the two main parties’ presidential nominees have featured in every election since, although the President still has the right not to take part.

As well as these often increasingly restrained encounters, there are also vice presidential debates, which often contain more explosive incidents.


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Certainly, in last year’s election, the contest between finger-jabbing Joe Biden and Paul Ryan were more heated with the latter being accused of talking “malarkey”.

Britain finally had its first series of general election debates in 2010 after Labour’s Gordon Brown became the first premier to agree to three televised exchanges.

But neither of the two main parties benefited and instead the now unpopular Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg reaped the biggest gains from his winning performances.

A second series of election debates are due to take place in 2015, although party leaders have not yet agreed on the format or whether to invite UKIP.

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