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–by Don Kennon

Tonight’s final televised presidential debate of the 2012 election calls to mind the first televised presidential debates in 1960 between Democratic candidate Senator John F. Kennedy and Republican candidate Vice President Richard M. Nixon.  Rather than rehash the story of the Kennedy-Nixon debates, what I’d like to do here is to provide some online resources for your further examination of those debates—and to pose the question suggested by the title of this blog post.

Before the 1960 debates, few voters ever had the opportunity to see the presidential candidates in person, let alone in debate with one another.  Televised debates altered the campaign equation.  Now, as political scientist Larry Sabato puts it, “When parties are considering their candidates they ask: Who would look better on TV? Who comes across better? Who can debate better?”

This of course raises the question of whether the debates are really more about the candidates’ style and personal appeal rather than their stance on substantive issues and their ability to lead and govern.

Presidential historian Theodore White in his book Making of the President 1960 made the case that the televised debates were both about style and substance because they allowed viewers to see and to judge how the candidates would operate as president:

What they [the debates] did best was to give the voters of a great democracy a living portrait of two men under stress and let the voters decide, by instinct and emotion, which style and pattern of behavior under stress they preferred in their leader….This sense of personal choice of leader has been missing for centuries from modern civilization….What the TV debates did was to generalize this tribal sense of participation, this emotional judgment of the leader, from the few to the multitude.

What’s your take?  Are televised debates more a matter of style over substance?  Or, as White suggests, do they reveal some combination of the two?  How could the debates be better structured to be more helpful to voters seeking to make an informed choice?

Online Resources for the 1960 Presidential Debates:

CNN: 1960 Presidential Debates

ABC News: TV Debate Makes JFK Superstar, Nixon a Loser

Archive of American Television: Kennedy-Nixon Debates

Kennedy-Nixon Debates

Kayla Webley, “How the Nixon-Kennedy Debate Changed the World,” Time, Sept. 23, 2010.

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