An excerpt from

Inside the Presidential Debates

Their Improbable Past and Promising Future

Newton N. Minow and Craig L. LaMay


President John F. Kennedy told me more than once that without the televised debates he would not have been elected president in 1960. The debates were the first ever face-to-face encounters between major-party presidential candidates. Going into the campaign, Kennedy was not nearly as well known as Richard M. Nixon, who had been vice president for eight years.

And yet today almost no one remembers the issues the two men discussed. The candidates spent much of their time arguing over China’s intentions toward two tiny Pacific islands, Quemoy and Matsu, claimed by Nationalist Taiwan, a matter quickly forgotten after the election. The matter of “south Indochina” came up so briefly that no one noticed it. Besides, the vice president assured the audience, “the civil war there was ended … and the Communists have moved out.”

But for better and worse, the Kennedy-Nixon debates changed presidential elections forever, propelling them into the age of television. In 1960 it had been only four years that a majority of American homes had a television set, and the “great debates,” as they were called, brought the candidates into the living rooms of millions of voters, allowing them to see, hear, and judge them in a way never before possible. At the same time, the experience stoked the public appetite for and the modern campaign’s emphasis on the image and the sound bite—those who saw the debates on television gave them to Kennedy, while those who heard them on the radio thought Nixon the winner.

Don Hewitt, who produced the first debate in Chicago for CBS, later said, “It was not important who won or lost that debate. That first debate launched Jack Kennedy onto the national scene.” Vice President Nixon had arrived at the television studio first, Hewitt said, and “banged his knee getting out of the car. He looked sort of green and sallow and unhappy. Then in walks this handsome Harvard kid who looks like a matinee idol. I said to both of them, ‘Do you want some makeup?’ Kennedy, who didn’t need any, said no. Nixon heard him say no and decided, ‘I can’t have makeup because it will look like I got made up and he didn’t.’ He went off in another room and got made up with something called Lazy Shave, and looked like death warmed over.

“Four years later,” Hewitt said, “I’m sitting in a makeup room in San Francisco. Richard Nixon is being made up to go out on the rostrum to introduce the [Republican] nominee, Barry Goldwater. And I said, ‘You know, Mr. Nixon, if you’d let Franny here make you up four years ago, Barry Goldwater would be going out there now to introduce you.” He looked in the mirror. And then he turned very slowly to me and he said, ‘You know, you’re probably right.’”

Three short years after those first televised encounters between Nixon and Kennedy, the president would be assassinated, and with him went the nascent “tradition” of televised presidential debates. Politics and the law stood in the way: In 1960, Congress suspended Section 315 (the “equal time” law) of the Federal Communications Act so as to make possible the nation’s first presidential debate. Without such a change, the law would have required every candidate for the office to be afforded equal time on television—and there were at least a dozen more candidates. President Kennedy had already signaled his intention to ask for another waiver, having promised his friend Barry Goldwater that if Goldwater won the Republican nomination in 1964 the two men would travel the country together and debate. But in 1964, incumbent president Lyndon Johnson sent clear word to the Senate that he did not want a similar suspension of the law, because he did not want to debate Republican nominee Goldwater.

In 1968 there was no incumbent, and though Vice President Hubert Humphrey wanted desperately to debate, Nixon—perhaps because of his experience in 1960—did not. The equal time law was not suspended. In 1972, President Nixon again told Congress that he would not debate his challenger, South Dakota senator George McGovern. So again the law was not changed. Of course, Democrats controlled the Congress then and could have pushed the issue, but they were horribly divided. Their 1968 convention in Chicago had been a disaster, and they were poorly prepared in 1972.

Not until 1975, after Nixon left office, was the law changed, this time without any congressional action. Instead, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) revised its interpretation of the equal time law to make debates possible. With the change in the law, as in 1960, the opportunity for debates in 1976 was fortuitous. As a result of Watergate and his pardon of former president Nixon, President Gerald Ford entered the 1976 campaign trailing far behind his challenger, Georgia Governor Jimmy Carter, in the polls. Ford felt he had to debate to win back public support. Seizing the moment, a handful of skilled and determined public officials from both major parties worked with citizens and civic groups to make the presidential debates happen. The tradition begun by President Ford and Governor Carter has survived, but it has not been easy.

• • •

Broadcast political debates in the United States began with the earliest days of radio. Before the 1928 presidential election, the then-new League of Women Voters sponsored a ten-month series of nationally broadcast debates. The candidates did not participate; instead, journalists, scholars, and other politicians argued on their behalf. The same year, the Mutual Broadcasting System launched American Forum of the Air, a regular public affairs and debate program moderated by lawyer Theodore Granik, who grilled candidates for lesser national and state offices and interrupted any candidate who tried to avoid his questions.

In March 1935, NBC Red, one of two NBC radio networks at the time, went national with The University of Chicago Round Table, a public affairs debate program. At the same time, NBC Blue began a more formal debate program, America’s Town Meeting of the Air, in which two candidates were each given twenty uninterrupted minutes to make their case to the listening audience at home and a live audience in the studio. The balance of the hour-long program consisted of questions from members of the studio audience on matters of national interest, and a prize was awarded to the audience member who asked the best question. At the height of its popularity the program had five million listeners weekly. The program’s moderator, George V. Denny Jr., believed that radio was a medium much better suited to political discussion than newspapers because, he claimed, the latter were always editing candidates’ remarks to make favored candidates and parties look better. “If we persist,” said Denny, “in the practice of Republicans reading only Republican newspapers, listening only to Republican speeches on the radio, attending only Republican political rallies, and mixing socially only with those of congenial views, and if Democrats … follow suit, we are sowing the seeds of the destruction of our democracy.” President Franklin Roosevelt strongly shared this opinion of newspaper reporting, which he thought was too often ideologically driven, and for that reason he took to radio with his “fireside chats” so he could communicate directly with the public.

A generation later, the new broadcast technology of television changed American politics even more profoundly. When Vice President Richard M. Nixon and Massachusetts Senator John F. Kennedy met in Chicago in September 1960 for the first of their four televised debates, it was the first time in U.S. history that the nominees of the major parties had joined in such a face-to-face encounter. Some 77 million Americans—60 percent of the adult population—watched that first Kennedy-Nixon debate, more than five thousand times the average audience for what had been until then the most famous political debates in American politics—the 1858 meetings between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas, who were running against each other for an Illinois Senate seat. Lincoln understood very well the importance of debates: he kept notes as to what was said in his encounters with Douglas, including verbatim reports from newspapers, and then published a book on the debates—the only book our sixteenth president ever published.

Today the Lincoln-Douglas debates are the benchmark for critics who decry the televised presidential debates as high-stakes political theater with little or no real substance. Minority parties and their supporters scorn the debates as a sham—except when their nominees are included in them. Before and after the debates, the candidates’ campaign staff and party spokespersons spin them for political advantage. Political pundits and journalists scour the candidates’ performances looking for the “winner.” Media watchdog organizations and political advocacy groups question the debates’ legitimacy, even their legality. The candidates themselves pose and posture before acceding to the debates, like prizefighters trying to intimidate each other. But citizens watch the debates in total numbers that rival or even exceed the Super Bowl for viewership. The debates are their one opportunity in the campaign to see and hear the candidates speak directly to each other in a face-to-face encounter.

It was this way from the beginning. Anticipating the first of the four 1960 debates between Vice President Richard Nixon and Senator John Kennedy, the print media were deeply skeptical of their broadcast competitors. A Wall Street Journal editorial warned that the televised encounter would be “rigged more for entertainment than for enlightenment.” The New York Times wrote dismissively that the debate would appeal most to voters “who are influenced not so much by logic and reason as by emotional, illogical factors—the candidate’s personality, whether he talks too much or too little, a desire to be with the winner or sympathy for the underdog, and many other far less rational factors.” The paper predicted that “Mr. Nixon and Mr. Kennedy will each be trying to bring the audience to his point of view, … but the danger is that they will be attempting to do this not so much by explanation and logic but by personality projection, charges and counter-charges, empty promises, and plain gimmicks of one sort or another. The fear is that they will not discuss the issues as much as put on a show.” Jack Gould, the eminent television critic for the New York Times, panned the decision to rely on a panel of journalists to ask the questions: “What is very definitely wanted rather than mere questions and answers is a discussion between the two men… . For the candidates to agree that serious issues discussed in ‘the great conference’ can be handled in one and a half or two and a half minutes is not an encouraging augury of the campaign to come.” On the morning of the first Nixon-Kennedy encounter, September 26, a Times writer compared the coming evening’s program with the Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858 and intimated that the 1960 debates would be found wanting by comparison.

If the press was not fully satisfied, neither were the candidates. The press secretaries for both candidates—Pierre Salinger for Senator Kennedy and Herbert Klein for Vice President Nixon—complained prior to the first debate that the panel of journalists included no one from the nation’s major print media but only representatives from the three networks. Also prior to the first debate, an “independent” candidate who had unsuccessfully sought the Democratic nomination, Andrew J. Easter, sued in federal district court to be included in the program. Easter claimed that the congressional action that made the debates possible was an unconstitutional abridgment of his right to participate, for it was allowing the networks to engage in “discriminatory and unfair practices in silent unison.” Among many others, Easter named as defendants in his suit both houses of Congress, FCC Chairman Frederick Ford, NBC President Robert Kintner, Vice President Nixon, and Senator Kennedy.

Neither was the broadcast industry uniformly happy with the debates. Though the programs represented a professional milestone for the television networks, which had long wanted to prove themselves important contributors to the national political discussion, many of their affiliates were angered by the debates because of program preemptions and lost advertising revenue. In testimony before Congress, CBS president Frank Stanton promised that his network would not accept commercial sponsorship for the debates. Speaking afterward, NBC chairman Robert W. Sarnoff was equivocal on the issue, noting at one point that NBC had received “expressions of sponsor interest” in the debates and that he “felt it desirable in the public interest to encourage sponsorship of informational programs in the field of public affairs.” The sponsorship issue was a critical one: in the agreement hammered out between the networks and Congress, the networks each had promised to provide a minimum of eight hours of public-service time without charge to the major-party candidates in 1960. Eventually the 1960 debates ran without interruption even for local station breaks. Trade magazine Broadcasting estimated that each of the four debates that year cost each of the networks approximately a half million dollars in forgone advertising revenue and program preemptions—about $6 million overall—and their affiliates many millions more.

Moreover, the 1960 debates were not entirely free from instant polls and political spin. For the first debate, on September 26, the Gallup Poll assembled sixty avowed “independent” voters in a movie house in Hopewell, New Jersey, to watch the program and, with an electronic box, to register their “approval” or “disapproval” of the candidates’ remarks. The point of the exercise, said the Wall Street Journal, was “to uncover new clues as to what issues concern American voters this year and how they will vote November 8.” By the end of the week, the New York Times would report, based on a handful of random interviews throughout the country, that the debate had done little to change voters’ minds. The same day, however, ten southern governors who had previously been at best lukewarm to Kennedy’s candidacy strongly endorsed him, citing his “superb handling of Mr. Nixon and the issues facing our country.” A scientific survey of the nation’s voters done for CBS by pollster Elmo Roper found that 44 percent believed the debates had influenced their vote; 5 percent said their presidential choice was based solely on the debates.

The morning after the first debate, newspaper reviews of the program were mixed, but a common theme to most was that television was too superficial a medium for such a serious business as national politics. The New York News called the program a “powderpuff performance” and charged that the “TV tycoons” had prevented the candidates from fully engaging each other by their use of a panel of journalists to ask questions. The Wall Street Journal, confirming its own predebate prediction, complained that “those ghostly figures with their backs to the cameras were nothing but distractions. Even good questions would have derailed the conversation… . If instead the two candidates had been left alone to speak, to question and reply to each other, they would have inevitably pushed themselves to the hard questions about labor policy, taxes, civil rights, government spending or about the role of government in welfare legislation.” The New York Mirror criticized even more harshly the decision to have journalists ask the questions, saying the debate was “bad television, and whoever arranged the show either was overawed by the occasion and the personalities or he just did not know his business… . The questions asked by the commentators got the argument just about nowhere. In the future these fellows can be dispensed with.” Other newspapers were more charitable, if not entirely enthusiastic. The Baltimore Sun, for example, wrote that “the ‘great debate’ wasn’t exactly great and it wasn’t exactly a debate, but it was the best political program of the year.” The St. Louis Post-Dispatch called the program “a stiff and formalized occasion” but allowed that a “real discussion of the issues did take place.” The Seattle Times concluded that “both candidates handled tough questions with professional skill but seemed somewhat confined by the program’s rigid format. There was too much emphasis on seeing to it that each candidate had the same number of seconds in which to speak.”

Journalists were not alone in their criticism. The eminent historian Henry Steele Commager wrote in the New York Times Magazine that “televised press conferences in future campaigns could be a disaster” and offered his view that neither George Washington nor Abraham Lincoln would have fared well in “such televised press interviews.” The journalist-scholar Norman Cousins was harsher, writing in the Saturday Review that the debates ran “counter to the educational process. They require that a man keep his mouth moving whether he has something to say or not… . Thoughtful silence is made to appear a confession of ignorance.” Only the British seemed to think the debates an unalloyed success. The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) showed the first debate in its entirety, and London’s Daily Mirror called the program “a brilliant lesson from America on how to make an election come vividly alive.” The London News Chronicle suggested Britain copy the idea: “Set rival leaders together on the same screen and the most partisan of viewers is forced to hear both sides of the question.”

Problems notwithstanding, history records the 1960 debates a great success with voters: according to data compiled by the ratings firm Arbitron, 73.5 million Americans saw that first debate, and two-thirds of the nation’s 45 million households with television sets tuned in to watch. If the political experts and pundits had their doubts, the public did not. One Detroit woman told the Wall Street Journal, “I learned more about what each man stands for in an hour than I have in two months of reading the papers.” A young Anchorage sales clerk who would be voting for the first time told the paper, “Before, I was concerned only with things like Kennedy’s grin and his religion, but now I feel the campaign is seriously grounded on issues. It was something I know I wouldn’t have taken the time to read in the papers.” Though most newspaper editorials called the debate a draw, anecdotal reports from viewers suggested that Kennedy had significantly increased his standing among undecided voters. A Jacksonville, Florida, real estate broker told the Journal, “I always thought Kennedy was a kiddie, but he really came out last night. I’d been leaning toward Nixon, but now I think Kennedy’s the boy. He has more brains—an amazing memory and he’s a better speaker.” Nixon supporters, by contrast, were concerned. Said one Dallas man, “Nixon looked sick. He looked as though he’s really lost weight, and I kept noticing beads of sweat on his forehead. Kennedy looked better.” Reporters traveling with Nixon said the vice president was disappointed in his performance.

The fourth and final debate of the 1960 campaign was broadcast from ABC News studios in New York. Like the previous three, the fourth drew an audience of more than 60 million viewers; an average of 71 million viewers watched each of the four debates, and a total of more than 115 million Americans watched at least some part of the four debates on television or listened to them on the radio. On television, all four debates attracted audiences averaging 20 percent larger than the entertainment programs they replaced. At the conclusion of the final program, moderator Quincy Howe of ABC News said: “Vice President Nixon and Senator Kennedy have used a new means of communication to pioneer a new type of political debate… . Surely they have set a new precedent. Perhaps they have established a new tradition.”

But it would not be that easy.

Copyright notice: Excerpt from pages 1–3, 9–13 of Inside the Presidential Debates: Their Improbable Past and Promising Future by Newton N. Minow and Craig L. LaMay, published by the University of Chicago Press. ©2008 by Newton N. Minow and Craig L. LaMay. All rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that this entire notice, including copyright information, is carried and provided that the University of Chicago Press is notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the consent of the University of Chicago Press. (Footnotes and other references included in the book may have been removed from this online version of the text.)

Newton N. Minow and Craig L. LaMay
Inside the Presidential Debates: Their Improbable Past and Promising Future
Foreword by Vartan Gregorian
©2008, 238 pages, 31 tables
Cloth $22.50 ISBN: 978-0-226-53041-3 (ISBN-10: 0-226-53041-8)

For information on purchasing the book—from bookstores or here online—please go to the webpage for Inside the Presidential Debates.

See also: