The first debate over the debates: how Kennedy and Nixon negotiated the 1960 presidential debates.

Author:Self, John W.

On September 20, 2004, Mary Beth Cahill of the Kerry campaign and Ken Mehlman of the Bush campaign signed a 32-page Memorandum of Understanding that set forth the rules for the 2004 presidential debates. When the memorandum was made public, it was a new twist on a forty-year history of presidential debate negotiation. The memorandum was the product of a negotiation process largely unknown to the public. This tradition of hidden pre-debate negotiations, however, is not new. The act of negotiating modern political debates started during the 1960 campaign and those negotiations became a boilerplate for future campaigns.

It can be said without much reservation that the 1960 debates between John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon were the most significant, groundbreaking American political campaign events of the twentieth century. Ashmore contended that the debates marked "a final shift in American political technique" (Mazo et al. 1962, 1). Windt (1994) argued that these debates "established both the precedent and format for subsequent debates" (1994, 1). Two presidential candidates charged into relatively uncharted political waters by agreeing to go on live television, together, without scripts or notes. This was a radical departure from typical presidential campaigning. There had been political debates before 1960, but none had been televised nationally.

Both Nixon and Kennedy had participated in political debates in their careers previously. Nixon had successfully debated Jerry Voorhis in his run for the House in 1946 and Kennedy's triumph in the 1960 West Virginia presidential primary is credited, in large part, to his victory over Hubert Humphrey in their debate (Mazo et al. 1962; Windt 1994). With the exception of primary debates in 1948 (Dewey-Stassen), 1956 (Stevenson-Kefauver), and 1960, presidential candidates did not square off in such a forum. However, there were some important differences between Nixon's and Kennedy's debate experiences and the challenge they faced together for the first time on September 26, 1960.

First, neither candidate, nor any candidates before them, had ever debated in front of a national television audience. It was estimated that over 100 million viewers watched some or all of the four televised debates (Mickelson 1972). No political candidate had ever been able to address so many potential voters in one event before. The television age of politics was indeed born.

Second, here was a new challenge for the person running for president of the United States: each had to attack his opponent and refute his arguments and policies while the opponent was standing right next to him and he had to look presidential while doing it.

Finally, agreeing to debate each other on national television was the biggest risk either of them took in a campaign. As vice president, Nixon was the better known of the two candidates. He took a great risk by sharing a stage with Kennedy. Many advised Nixon against debating, including his boss, President Eisenhower (Mazo et al. 1962). In his memoirs, Nixon (1978) explained that he felt like he had no other option but to debate: "But there was no way I could refuse to debate without having Kennedy and the media turn my refusal into a central campaign issue. The question we faced was not whether to debate, but how to arrange the debates so as to give Kennedy the least possible advantage" (1978, 217).

Kennedy understandably wanted as many face-to-face meetings with Nixon as possible. However, there was still a considerable risk for Kennedy because if he were to do poorly, it could not only ruin his bid for the White House, it could potentially end his political career, a true threat for such a young politician. These were considerable risks, especially in an election that had been predicted to be close from the very beginning. This essay explores the chronology of the negotiations that made it possible for these historic debates to occur.

April Through July, 1960

As more recent debates over the debates have demonstrated, these debates were not put together overnight. Much planning and thought went into them. However, the story started much earlier than most people might realize.

In April of 1960, while giving a speech to the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, NBC President Bob Sarnoff publicly made his original offer of eight weekly, hour-long, Meet the Press broadcasts to both the Republican and Democratic candidates (Seltz and Yoakam 1977). Approximately three weeks later, CBS President Frank Stanton and ABC President Oliver Treyz, testifying before a House subcommittee, made similar offers as they asked Congress to suspend Section 315 (the equal-time provision; Seltz and Yoakam 1977). The networks tried to be clear that the time they were offering was not a gift, but rather "time over which they, the networks, meant to exercise an editorial control to insure maximum viewing interest" (White 1961, 282). These acts by the major television networks set in motion many efforts for the first-ever televised general election presidential debates.

Nixon was the first candidate to comment on the debate proposal. In a July 24 interview on CBS with Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite, Nixon said that he would be willing to debate Kennedy. However, he insisted "that the details would have to be worked out so that there would be intelligent and serious discussion of the issues" (Gould 1960a, 39M). This led to the formal announcement by NBC on July 27, the night Nixon officially won the Republican nomination, inviting both candidates to participate in eight prime-time hours on NBC (Kilpatrick 1960; Seltz and Yoakam 1977). Of these eight hours, four of them were to be "hour-long programs" for a "discussion of the issues according to the ground rules to be drawn up in consultation with the candidates," and the other four were to "elicit the views of the candidates in response to ... a panel of outstanding American journalists" (Associated Press 1960a, A5). ABC and CBS quickly followed suit with invitations of their own and it was not long before the Mutual Broadcasting System (MBS) offered its radio services (Associated Press Wire 1960; Kilpatrick 1960). Now the candidates and the networks had a starting point from which to negotiate.

Of course, as the lesser-known candidate with a smaller war chest, Kennedy immediately accepted. Earlier that year, the Kennedy campaign approached the Nixon campaign seeking an agreement on limiting the amount of TV time each side could buy. The Nixon camp wanted no part of such an agreement. As a result, the Kennedy campaign sought to use as much free TV time as they possibly could (Sorensen 1965).

Nixon hedged some. He later claimed "The most important of all the strategy we made during this period was with regard to the television debates. I should point out, however, that by this time the question we had to decide was not whether we should have debates--but rather, how they should be conducted" (Nixon 1962, 322-23). However, Herbert Klein, Nixon's press secretary, remembered things differently:

While we gave lip service to the change in law {the suspension of Section 315}, we had met with Nixon on it, and he had been an outspoken, strong advocate of avoiding a debate on the principle that a President or Vice President is in a position where he cannot answer all the questions fully because of his knowledge of security information.... During a Blackstone Hotel press conference following the nomination at the Chicago convention, Nixon again startled all of us ... by reversing all the views he previously had expressed regarding televised debates with Kennedy. He announced that he was accepting the networks' invitation and would debate John Kennedy. I was standing a few feet away from him during the conference and I almost fell over when I heard this ... Nixon avoided all discussion with us as to why he had changed his mind and exactly what moment he had made the decision. I could attribute the reversal only to the fact that he did not want his manhood sullied by appearing as if he were afraid to debate his opponent face-to-face, and he was confident that he could win such an encounter. (Klein 1980, 102-03) Nixon announced, through Herb Klein, that he wanted to look at the format proposed. Klein was quoted as saying that the vice president was "willing to debate a rival candidate, including Senator Kennedy, if this is the desire of the networks and the public" (Kennedy Accepts 1960, 1). Nixon also stipulated that the candidates should "speak without notes, answer each other's questions and perhaps answer questions from the audience" (Nixon vs. Kennedy 1960, 1). "It's not who is the best debater," Nixon was quoted as saying, "but who understands the issues that counts" (Scripps 1960, 4). Nixon publicly confirmed his intention to participate in the debates on July 30 (Seltz and Yoakam 1977).

August 1960

In an August 2 press conference in Los Angeles, Nixon was asked, "Mr. Vice President, do you welcome the debate between you and Senator Kennedy?" Nixon responded by outlining what he considered to be the "proper circumstances" for such a debate:

I think it would not serve a useful purpose if it was the kind of debate that Senator Kennedy and Senator Humphrey had in West Virginia, where I think what you need is a discussion of the issues without texts, without notes, where the candidates in depth go into specific issues so that the people can learn how they think and how they react to the questions that are raised by each other in the course of the debate. We're now trying to see whether we can work out such a...

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