The Great Debates Revisited

American life changed forever in 1960 when Vice President Richard M. Nixon and Massachusetts Sen. John F. Kennedy ushered politics into the multimedia age with the first televised presidential debates.

To mark the 50th anniversary of this landmark moment in American political history, the Kansas City Public Library, the Harry S. Truman Presidential Library and Museum, and the Truman Library Institute present The Great Debates Revisited. This series of programs during September-October 2010 features weekly screenings of the four televised match-ups plus introductory commentary by expert speakers and follow-up Q&A sessions. The Great Debates Revisited also includes book discussion groups on Theodore H. White's The Making of the President 1960 led by former area mayors as well as Hollywood films examining the lives and legacies of Kennedy and Nixon. 

"TV would prove so entirely in Kennedy’s favor that he would win the election," wrote cultural critic Marshall McLuhan. "Without TV, Nixon had it made."

An estimated 70 million people watched this first verbal sparring contest between the candidates, making it the largest single political event in American history up to that time with 60 percent of all households tuned in to the event and another 15 million Americans listening to the radio broadcast.

This first debate immediately proved the difference between television and radio as media, with much anecdotal evidence attesting to the fact that TV viewers scored the debate for Kennedy while radio listeners rated Nixon as the winner. The reasons for the disparity are myriad and much-disputed, analyzing everything from preparation strategies and debating styles down to each candidate’s choice of suit.

Nixon had considered himself a master of television since his so-called "Checkers" speech in 1952. After Kennedy disabused him of that notion, Nixon learned quickly and argued forcefully against Kennedy over the next three debates.

But the damage was already done.

The public response and political fallout from the Great Debates—as the television networks dubbed them—was so great that televised presidential debates were seen as an incredible gamble, one that would not be taken again until 1976.

back to top


Special Events

First Debate: Domestic Affairs

Monday, September 27
Reception: 6 p.m. • Program: 6:30 p.m.
Plaza Branch, 4801 Main St.

Guest Speaker: Sander Vanocur

Veteran journalist Sander Vanocur represented NBC News as a panelist during the first Great Debate. He pressed Nixon to offer examples of executive leadership experienced gained in the role of vice president and questioned Kennedy about whether he could get his ambitious domestic agenda through Congress.

Kennedy was the perceived winner of the first debate, a contention supported by opinion polls at the time. A savvy understanding of the television medium accounted for the Kennedy victory, though setbacks for Nixon played a role.

Perhaps the foremost problem for Nixon was the impression of poor health conveyed by his exceedingly pale pallor (caused by his aggravating a preexisting knee-injury just 30 minutes before the contest). "The candidate looked better suited for going to a funeral, perhaps his own, than to a debate," wrote David Halberstam in Esquire.


Second Debate: Roundtable Q&A

Tuesday, October 5
Reception: 6 p.m. • Program: 6:30 p.m.
Plaza Branch, 4801 Main St.

Guest Speaker: James Roth

The second debate was considered a tie, with a slight advantage given to Nixon for his forceful articulation of the strategic importance of Quemoy and Matsu – two islands controlled by Taiwan located off the coast of mainland China.

James Roth is the deputy director of the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library & Museum, where he oversees its Digital Initiative and other matters relating to its Archives and Museum divisions. He joined the institution in 2001 as its Ernest Hemingway Curator. His articles have been published in American Archivist, Prologue, and The Hemingway Review.


Third Debate: Roundtable Q&A

Tuesday, October 12
Reception: 6 p.m. • Program: 6:30 p.m.
Plaza Branch, 4801 Main St.

Guest Speaker: Timothy Naftali

Nixon was attributed the win for this debate, which continued the prior foreign policy argument. Perhaps more importantly, the third debate is the only contest in which the candidates argued without a direct personal confrontation as they appeared in separate television studios – Kennedy in New York and Nixon in Los Angeles.

Timothy Naftali is the director of the Nixon Presidential Library & Museum. A former history professor at the University of Virginia, he is the author of four books, including Blind Spot: The Secret History of American Counterterrorism. His articles have appeared on, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and Foreign Affairs.


Fourth Debate: Foreign Policy

Monday, October 18
Reception: 6 p.m. • Program: 6:30 p.m.
Plaza Branch, 4801 Main St.

Guest Speaker: Rick Perlstein

The fourth debate attracted the largest TV audience and is considered a draw, with Kennedy given the advantage. The candidates argued over Cuba – with Kennedy almost telegraphing the coming Bay of Pigs invasion – and traded perhaps the sharpest personal barbs in the series.

Rick Perlstein is a historian and former senior fellow at the Campaign for America’s Future. He is the author of Nixonland: the Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America and Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus.


The President’s Photographer
50 Years in the Oval Office
Premieres on KCPT Channel 19
Wednesday, November 24, 2010

For 50 years, presidential photographers have covered it all: upheaval, tragedy, joy—often developing friendships with the presidents they serve. Acting as both visual historians and key links between the public and the presidents, for these photographers no day is the same—whether aboard Air Force One, backstage at the State of the Union or in the heart of the West Wing.

The current presidential photographer, Pete Souza is never far behind President Obama. In this new National Geographic Special, viewers follow Souza (and those who came before him) for a behind-the-scenes look at the everyday grit of the American presidency. It’s a chance to see what it’s like to cover the most powerful man in the world, for history.

back to top


Book Discussions

Saturday, October 9 (with Kay Barnes)
& Saturday, October 16 (with Dick Berkley)
Program: 2 p.m.
Cohen Conference Room
Plaza Branch, 4801 Main St.

The Kennedy-Nixon debates receive a close analysis in one entire chapter of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book The Making of the President 1960, authored by political journalist Theodore H. White. The book is a classic American history and political science text that launched a whole genre of narrative journalism that is still imitated.

Former Kansas City mayors Kay Barnes (on October 9) and Dick Berkley (on October 16) each lead one book discussion and share stories of how the Kennedy and Nixon campaigns influenced their own political careers.

These programs are free, but space is limited. Call 816.701.3407 to reserve a seat as well as a copy of The Making of the President 1960, while supplies last.

back to top


Film Series: A Presidential Perspective

Saturdays at 1:30 p.m.
Stanley H. Durwood Film Vault
Central Library, 14 W. 10th St.

While Hollywood is often more captivated by idealized fictional presidents than actual presidents, this film selection offers cinematic depictions of both John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon.

Frost/Nixon on October 2. Ron Howard directs this dramatization of the much-heralded interviews conducted by British talk-show host David Frost with President Nixon, three years after his resignation. Starring Frank Langella and Michael Sheen. Rated R. (122 min.)

Thirteen Days on October 9. Kevin Costner stars as Kennedy aide Kenny O’Donnell, a close advisor who helps President Kennedy and "co-president" Robert Kennedy negotiate the Cuban Missile Crisis.

PT 109 on October 16. This Kennedy biopic film focuses on his time as a Navy officer aboard a PT boat assigned to the Soloman Islands during WWII. Starring Cliff Robertson with Robert Blake. Based on the book PT 109: John F. Kennedy in World War II by Robert J. Donovan. Not Rated. (140 min.)

Nixon on October 23. In this controversial biographical film, Anthony Hopkins stars as the only American president ever to resign under the threat of impeachment. Acclaimed filmmaker Oliver Stone directs an all-star cast in this powerful depiction of the life and times of one of America’s most infamous leaders. Rated R. (191 min.)

The Fog of War on October 30. Master documentarian Errol Morris directs this film, focused on interviews conducted with Robert S. McNamara, the Secretary of Defense during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations and a lead architect of the Vietnam War. Rated PG-13. (95 min.)

back to top


Sponsor Information

The Great Debates Revisited is a joint effort coordinated by the Kansas City Public Library in partnership with the Harry S. Truman Library & Museum and the Truman Library Institute, with additional support from KCPT.

The Kansas City Public Library would like to offer special thanks to the JFK Presidential Library & Museum and the JFK Library Foundation as well as the Nixon Presidential Library & Museum.