Political Debates: What the Unforgettable Moments Reveal

High-stakes debates put candidates in the hot seat. But are they helpful to voters?

Tell-all moments in political debates are embedded in political folklore, from knockout one-liners to astonishing gaffes. High-stakes debates put candidates in the hot seat. But are they helpful to voters?

The first presidential debate in 1960 was a creation of the television age, and it quickly entered its founding lore. We’re told those who saw the debate on TV favored the handsome, well made-up Kennedy. Radio listeners, on the other hand, thought Nixon had won. Evidence supporting this story is shoddy — a mix of anecdote, assumptions and a debunked survey – but the story continues to shape how we understand debates today.

Many historians say there is a misplaced focus on the ability of make-up – or other non-substantive aspects of performance – to deliver political victory, when debates have become one of our most important civic rituals, allowing glimpses into candidate’s character that comes from them defending their ideas in an unscripted, high-stakes environment. But what impact has the changing media landscape had on debates? And what does that mean for this election?

For teachers
  • Producer: Hal Hansen
  • Producer: Erik German
  • Producer: Meral Agish
  • Editor: Sandrine Isambert
  • Associate Producer: Victor Couto
  • Additional Editor: Heru Muharrar

For Educators


This 11-minute video introduces students to the Kennedy-Nixon debates, but also demonstrates how many of the myths and conventional narratives surrounding that debate aren’t supported by historical evidence. It also provides footage and analysis of many of the most famous moments in the history of presidential debating, and explains the function and value of debates in our democratic process. A useful video for any lesson covering the Kennedy-Nixon election, or for teachers who want to contextualize a debate in a current election cycle by showing its connection to the most famous moments from past presidential debates.

Background reading

On September 26, 1960, Senator John F. Kennedy and Vice-President Richard M. Nixon squared off in the first nationally-televised general election debate, and delivered a lasting lesson in the art of politics in the age of media to some 70 million viewers.

Kennedy, the stylish young Democrat from Massachusetts, won the debate because he looked better on television than his Republican rival, Richard Nixon, who appeared ill at ease and washed out.

That perception, at least, has dogged the debate for decades, with journalists and historians repeating it in textbooks and news stories. However, like many of the best stories, it wasn’t actually true, and has been debunked for lack of supporting historical evidence.

Replacing the myth is a more convincing narrative: Kennedy may have looked better on television that night, but that wasn’t the turning point. He won because he demonstrated a better command of policy and presidential poise than did Nixon, who had served the last eight years as vice-president.

Winners aside, the misperceptions about the Kennedy-Nixon debate continue to haunt political coverage today, as network anchors, pundits, and even spin doctors, seem more interested in rating presidential candidates on “performance” rather than platform.

But despite that flaw, the debates continue to offer viewers a rare chance to see their candidates on stage, under pressure, and demonstrating in thought and action what makes them tick.

And viewers vote.

Lesson Plan 1: Political Debates and the Kennedy-Nixon Debate

Students will learn how televised political debates have impacted modern politics, with an emphasis on the 1960 Kennedy-Nixon debate, and their importance to campaigns and elections today.

  • How technological and cultural changes, such as the rapid growth of television in the 1950s, can come to affect the political process.
  • How media narratives and information from other seemingly reliable sources can create incorrect understandings of historical events.
  • How political debates have impacted modern politics and how they continue to have an impact today.
Essential questions
  • Why do you think President Kennedy won the first debate?
  • How has media coverage of presidential debates over the years become distorted?
  • Why are presidential debates important?
  • Common Core State Standards
    • CCSS.ELA.LITERACY.RI.11-12.3:Analyze a complex set of ideas or sequences of events and explain how specific individuals, ideas, or events interact or develop over the course of a text.
    • CCSS.ELA.LITERACY.RH.11-12.7:Integrate and evaluate multiple sources of information presented in diverse formats and media (e.g., visually, quantitatively, as well as in words) in order to address a question or solve a problem.
  • National Council for the Social Studies C3 Framework
    • D2.His.14.9-12.Analyze multiple and complex causes and effect of events in the past.
    • D3.2.9-12.Evaluate the credibility of a source by examining how experts value the source.
  • AP U.S. History
    • Topic 8.2: The Cold War from 1945 to 1980

      Skill 3.A: Identify and describe a claim and/or argument in a non-text-based source.

      Theme 6: America in the World (WOR).

  • AP Government and Politics
    • Unit 5: Political Participation