Fifty-six years ago in the historical rear view mirror, the four Kennedy-Nixon debates were the first presidential debates and set the precedent for presidential debates, although the next would not occur until 1976 between Ford and Carter. In the first debate Kennedy, who secretly suffered from numerous ailments, radiated health and vigor. Nixon looked terrible in comparison, having been hospitalized for two weeks in August over an infected knee and having not regained the weight he lost during his recovery. Nixon insisted on campaigning until the time of the debate and refused to wear television makeup. Nixon’s mother called him after the debate and asked him if he was ill. After the debate, polls indicated that Kennedy went from a slight deficit to a slight lead.
In the subsequent debates Nixon used television makeup, regained the weight he lost and appeared more forceful. Commentators at the time largely thought that Kennedy won the first debate, Nixon the second and the third, and the fourth was a draw.
The Kennedy-Nixon race was such a close one, it is hard not to believe that the debates had an impact, although in a very close political contest, that claim could be made for quite a few events in a campaign. In any event, the debates marked a change in presidential campaigns that has endured over half a century.