Sept. 26, 1960 was the date of the first debate between Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy, signalling a new era where television would be a dominant force in politics. Kennedy speechwriter Ted Sorensen dispels some myths about the debate in a New York Times piece, and Walter Shapiro of Politics Daily writes that, as much as we like to think that the format has become more stylistic and less substantive since then, in truth there was duplicity and triviality on display even in these first match ups.
He writes, “During the third 1960 debate, a reporter asked Kennedy if he felt obligated to apologize
for the profanity of Harry Truman’s campaign remark that anyone who
votes Republican can (horrors!) “go to hell.” That gave JFK the
opportunity to show off his dry wit: “I really don’t think there’s
anything that I could say to President Truman that’s going to cause him,
at the age of 76, to change his particular speaking manner. Perhaps
Mrs. Truman can, but I don’t think I can.” Even more comic in hindsight
(especially in light of the expletive-deleted Watergate tapes) was the
way that Nixon unctuously responded, “Whoever is president is going to
be a man that all the children of America will either look up to — or
will look down to.””
Video of the first debate here.