On October 21, 1960, American viewers were riveted to their television sets for the broadcast of the fourth and final debate between Republican Vice President Richard M. Nixon and Democratic Senator John F. Kennedy.
The first-ever televised debate between presidential candidates was held on September 26, 1960. An estimated total of sixty to seventy million viewers watched the first and the successive debates, which came to be known as “the Great Debates.”
The first debate, broadcast by CBS, focused on domestic issues. Each candidate was allowed eight minutes for an opening statement, followed by thirty minutes of questions and answers and a combined total of ten minutes for closing statements. The first and last debates allowed two and a half minutes for answers and one and a half minutes for comments on questions directed to the opponent. The fourth debate, broadcast by ABC, focused on foreign policy issues, particularly U.S. relations with Cuba.
The second and third one-hour debates, televised from New York by NBC and ABC, respectively, followed a looser format with a news panel questioning the candidates on a variety of subjects. The second debate had neither opening nor closing statements by the candidates. The third debate was the first genuine “electronic debate,” with the two candidates facing off from opposite coasts; Kennedy spoke from a television studio in New York and Nixon from Los Angeles.
The 1960 debates have been compared to the famous 1858 debates in the senatorial campaign between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas. However, the seven Lincoln-Douglas debates were held outdoors in the towns of several voting districts. Each debate lasted three hours — first one candidate spoke for one hour, then the second candidate spoke for an hour and a half, and then the first candidate spoke again for another thirty minutes. The debates were attended by crowds ranging from 1,500 to as many as 20,000 people.
In the twentieth century, radio became the new political medium. During the presidential campaign of 1924, radio stations broadcast the speeches of incumbent President Calvin Coolidge, the Republican candidate, and John W. Davis, the Democratic candidate. During World War II, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt held the attention of the American public through his use of this medium in his radio-broadcast “fireside chats.”
An increase in the use of radio by politicians sparked arguments about freedom versus responsibility of the broadcasting industry in providing coverage of political events. Criticism by political parties, Congress, and the Federal Communications Commission led to legislation in the areas of equal airtime and freedom of speech.
In 1952, national political conventions and the presidential campaign were televised nationwide for the first time. The public avidly followed television coverage of the campaign and rated television as the most informative medium. Televised broadcasts of the debates in the 1960 presidential campaign were a response to the public’s enthusiasm for this type of coverage.
Pollsters estimated that approximately 3.4 million voters determined their choice of party solely on the basis of the Great Debates. The milestone events thrust broadcast media into a central role in American political life. The trend continues despite critics blaming the media for the “merchandising” of candidates, the rising costs of political campaigns, and the use of advertising agencies in the “image manipulation” of candidates.
- Hear examples of political speeches just prior to the rise of the broadcast media. Listen to recordings from the presidential campaign of 1920 contained in the collection American Leaders Speak: Recordings from World War I.
- Search Today in History using the term president for features on presidents Nixon, Kennedy, Lincoln, and others.
- Search Congress.gov using the term debate to view bills and resolutions such as Senate Resolution 398, designating March 15, 2016 as “National Speech and Debate Education Day.”
- See The Debates in the Several State Conventions on the Adoption of the Federal Constitution in the collection A Century of Lawmaking for a New Nation: U.S. Congressional Documents and Debates, 1774-1875. These debates, compiled by Jonathan Elliot in the mid-nineteenth century, document the period between the closing of the Constitutional Convention and the opening of the First Federal Congress. Delegates from each state debated the contents of the Constitution that would take effect when ratified by the conventions of nine of the thirteen states.
- Visit the National Park Service website to see information about the Lincoln-Douglas Debates and Abraham Lincoln’s writings on slavery, which include excerpts from his Fifth, Sixth, and Seventh debates with Stephen Douglas.