John F. Kennedy Can Thank Television for His Win

John F. Kennedy
John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon getting ready to debate.

As we come close to the 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination Friday, there are a lot of stories about that fateful day.

But as much as that moment changed America, there is one moment that happened three years prior to his death. When the debate between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon aired, it was the first time a debate was broadcasted on television. Some say that Kennedy may have even won the presidency because of it. With that fateful night, John F. Kennedy can thank television for his win.

In 1928, televisions were made available to Americans. Radio was still the dominant medium for news information, but people were curious about this new device that could broadcast images and sound from a box. Soon, radio stations NBC and CBS began to produce special programming to air. During World War II, though, television broadcasts were slowed down and radio was the primary medium. However, by the 1950s, television dominated radio, and by the time the debate was going to take place, 47.5 million households had a television set.

The debate took place on September 26, 1960. It was the first of four for the candidates. These debates were taking place when Americans were unsure about their country, due to the Cold War with Russia and Fidel Castro gaining greater power in Cuba. The public wanted a president that would be tough enough to handle these threats to their country.

The debate was viewed by over 70 million people on television. Now, with radio all a person knows is what is being said. According to a survey, the people who heard the debate on the radio declared that Nixon won the debate. But, when surveying people who watched it on television, they overwhelmingly agreed that Kennedy had won.

There were a couple of reasons that those people probably said that Kennedy won: On television, people could see the candidates up close. They noticed the younger, seemingly tan-like appearance of Kennedy, and Nixon, according to people, looked exhausted. The funny thing is that they both declined makeup artists at CBS. But, Nixon had a 5 o’clock shadow, and used his regular thick cream instead, so when the lights hit, Nixon appear to be sweating, and looked terrible, while Kennedy looked poised.

John F. Kennedy

But the biggest reason Kennedy gained an edge and his momentum was the way he used television. He was known to be charismatic when he would meet and greet people, but he used television to bring it to the homes. He took his personality and connected with the American people. He looked directly at the camera when he spoke. By combining the ability to see a person far away, and the natural personality, John F. Kennedy was able to make himself at home.

Television was the medium that helped carry John F. Kennedy throughout the next three debates, even as Nixon was more improved in appearance. This was a change in how people seen their presidential candidate, because they were actually able to physically see their candidate. Connection is an important factor if anyone wants to become president. That level of trust is important. And if John F. Kennedy were alive today, he would probably thank television for helping him win.

By: Renayle Fink

Elon University

New York Times

The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History


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