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Does television affect how we elect Presidents?

A screenshot from the Nixon/Kennedy Presidential debates (JFK Presidential Library)

A screenshot from the Nixon/Kennedy Presidential debates (JFK Presidential Library)

Fifty years ago last week, John F. Kennedy beat Richard Nixon to become the nation’s 35th President. The 1960s were a significant changing of the guard in U.S. leadership and also in how Americans chose their leader. During the 1960 debates between the two candidates, Americans for the first time could tune in and watch the debates on television, or listen on the radio.

About 70 million people tuned in to watch the Kennedy/Nixon debates. When they turned on their television sets, they saw a tired Richard Nixon and a tanned, fit John Kennedy. Nixon had refused makeup for the cameras, wore an ill-fitting shirt, and hadn’t gained back his natural weight after a serious knee injury and two weeks in the hospital. Kennedy, on the other hand, had been campaigning in southern California and appeared on camera with a healthy tan.

The story has it that those Americans who tuned in over the radio believed the two candidates were evenly matched, but tended to think Nixon had won the debates. But those 70 million who watched the candidates on the television believed Kennedy was the clear victor.

While there aren’t any qualified statistics to back up this claim, what is certain is that Kennedy took a leap in the polls after the debate. Looks, it seemed, suddenly mattered in Presidential races, far more than they ever had before. Kennedy himself said after the election that “it was TV more than anything else that turned the tide” toward his victory.

It’s curious to think who might have been elected if modern technology had been around throughout U.S. history. Washington wore dentures. Lincoln had a high-pitched voice. William Howard Taft weighed over 300 pounds. James Madison was 5′ 4″.

Listen and watch the 1960 debate below, and let us know who you think won. We’ve embedded the first debate from the JFK Presidential Library YouTube Channel below.

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Comment from Catherine Shteynberg
Time November 15, 2010 at 1:02 pm

This is great! Thanks for including this footage, which I had only seen a clip of until now.

Your readers might also be interested in reading a story that Kiku Adatto wrote for the Smithsonian Photography Initiative’s click! photography changes everything project. Titled “PHOTOGRAPHY CHANGES THE WAYS POLITICAL MESSAGES ARE PACKAGED,” Adatto talks about the way that photo and TV affected the Kennedy-Nixon debates as well as other political elections:

Catherine Shteynberg
Smithsonian Institution Archives