The Election of 1960: Kennedy vs. Nixon

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  • 0:01 The Election of 1960
  • 1:47 The Kennedy-Nixon Debates
  • 3:54 The Issues and the Outcome
  • 5:48 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Nate Sullivan

Nate Sullivan holds a M.A. in History and a M.Ed. He is an adjunct history professor, middle school history teacher, and freelance writer.

In this lesson, we will be learning about the exciting election of 1960. We will learn about the men running for president in this election (John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon) and why this election was important.

The Election of 1960

This is going to be a fun lesson. The presidential election of 1960 was super exciting and super unique. Let's find out why.

So, throughout a good part of the 1950s, Dwight D. Eisenhower was president. If you remember, Dwight D. Eisenhower was the famous general in charge of the D-Day landings during World War II. Eisenhower was a Republican president. He was in office between 1953-1961, and he was a relatively popular president.

So who would become the next president? Who could fill Eisenhower's shoes? Two men wanted the job. One was John F. Kennedy, a Democratic senator from Massachusetts. The other was Richard Nixon, a Republican, who had been Eisenhower's Vice President. Kennedy chose Texas senator Lyndon B. Johnson as his running mate, while Nixon chose Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr. as his running mate.

So why was the election of 1960 so unique? Well, it was the first presidential election to include debates. That's a pretty big deal. Furthermore, the debates were televised. Up until this time, television was a relatively new technology. Radio had been popular since the 1920s, but now with the rise of television, the American public could actually see and hear the candidates. Television allowed the public to really get a feel for who was running for president and what they were like.

The Kennedy-Nixon Debates

I want to talk about the televised debates in more detail because anytime you hear or read about the election of 1960, it's usually the debates that are the focus. The Kennedy-Nixon debates were a series of four televised debates that took place throughout the fall of 1960 between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon. Remember, it was Democratic senator John F. Kennedy against Republican Richard Nixon, who had recently been Vice President. The first debate began in September 1960.

Just before the first debate, Richard Nixon had been sick. When he appeared on TV before millions of viewers, he was still running a low-grade fever and looked horrible. Throughout the debate, he could be seen sweating, which caused his makeup (yes, they put makeup on him!) to melt away. He also had stubble on his face. Basically, Nixon looked sick and old. Kennedy, on the other hand, was a very good-looking man and was young. He had rested for the debate and had been in the sun in the days before it, giving him the look of a healthy tan.

Nixon looked nervous on TV, while Kennedy seemed confident and relaxed. Nixon often looked away from the camera when he spoke, whereas Kennedy looked directly into the camera, as if he were speaking right to the American people. One interesting fact: most of the people who watched the debate said that Kennedy won it, but many of the people who listened to the debate said that Nixon won it. What does this tell us? It tells us how important image was in this election!

So the first debate was basically a disaster for Nixon. He did a little better in the other three debates, but by that time, it was too late. America was falling in love with Kennedy - not to mention his beautiful wife and darling children.

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