Television debates are an integral part of the U.S. presidential elections. This is a meeting of two or more applicants for the U.S. presidency broadcasted live on national television. The candidates should discuss provocative and sensitive issues which affect social, political and economic subjects. Debates have become a powerful tool of influence on public opinion. They help those who do not read the election programs decide between the candidates. However, television debates could also have an unexpected impact on the outcomes of the election. In fact, the audience often focuses their attention on the image of the candidate, his or her ability to defend and explain his or her points of view rather than on real political ideas. The presidential election of 1960 initiated television debates in the United States and proved their important role in shaping public opinion.
The first debates in the U.S. history were held on September 26, 1960 (Gidlow). They gathered million viewers near the television screens. According to Gidlow, “some seventy-seven million Americans, over sixty percent of the adult population, watched the first exchange.” Opponents were Senator John Kennedy, the candidate nominated by the Democratic Party, and Vice President Richard Nixon, the Republican candidate. The venue was in the city of Chicago, CBS Studio. Indeed, it was an important historical event that opened a new chapter in the global television journalism and relations between the U.S. public and political life.
The program was held by well-known journalists of the time. The debate between the candidates was broadcasted by all national television channels and radio stations. Presidential candidates were standing on the edge of the scene. In the center, journalist and political commentator Howard Smith were sitting at the table. In the preparation for the television debates, Nixon had underestimated its role. Nixon occupied the vice-presidency and had no doubt about his victory over the upstart Democrat. Moreover, he knew that Americans had never led Catholic to victory in the presidential elections. Though, Nixon was known to be a great orator. He hoped that the audience would appreciate his clever ideas and election proposals to reform American politics. However, he ignored the appearance and manner which should have had in public. Nixon was badly prepared for the debate. Stay in hospital and no make-up made him look thinner, haggard, and pale (Webley). In bright light, he seemed unshaven. His appearance was regarded as a clear disrespect to the voters. He had clearly visible under-eye circles. Moreover, he stood close to lamps. Thus, after the start of the debate, his face was quickly covered with the drops of sweat. For unknown reasons, Nixon was not warned at what of the seven cameras he should look. As a result, viewers thought that his eyes were running around. Thus, he looked like a man with a guilty conscience. In addition, he was dressed in a gray suit which mingled on the black and white television screen.
In contrast to Nixon, Kennedy thoroughly prepared his own body image. He was young and energetic. A major success depended on the oratorical talent of the latter. Kennedy delivered his speech with confidence looking freely at the cameras and appealing directly to voters. Kennedy defeated all four rounds of the television debates. In subsequent battles, Nixon tried to change the situation, but, in the face of fierce opposition with almost equal ratings, he failed to receive full support from voters. Nixon understood that participation in the debate reduced his rating. Consequently, he refused to participate in the fifth round recognizing the defeat before the election. He believed that without debates, Kennedy would not “have been elected president” (Minow & LaMay). It means that they helped Kennedy won the presidency in 1960.
John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon opened the era of pre-election TV debates. Their results demonstrated the strength of the media image. The Republican candidate, who was weary and ill-shaven, lost to Kennedy who attracted with his smart and stylish look. Though, those who listened to the debate on the radio awarded the victory to Nixon (Druckman 563). Since then, the form of televised debates has been an important part of the election. The viewers and commentators are able to discuss how the candidates look and what programs they promote. Consequently, televised debates have changed the course of political life. Moreover, “the medium also gave politicians the chance to address tens of millions of people at once” (Botelho). Thus, the election of 1960 had a significant impact on the history of presidential campaigns. Since then, the debate has become a mandatory part of the presidential race. It remains unknown how the debate may affect the position of the voters. It is generally accepted that its impact should not be underestimated. If candidates have approximately equal ratings, they might receive more votes which often decide the fate of the presidency.
In the modern society, the most important form of the democratic election campaign is the participation of the candidates in the television debates. Thus, they have become an integral part of the U.S. presidential election. Following the example of the United States, many countries have adopted this tradition, which can be regarded as an essential element of democracy. In fact, television debate is the competition of personalities. The obvious superiority of Kennedy on television largely led to his victory in the election over Nixon, who was considered a favorite candidate before the debates. Since then, television debates have been attracting the electorate’s attention in the United States.