For JFK a television appearance represented the turning-point in the primary competition. He was Roman Catholic and decided to discuss this aspect of his life even against the ideas of his advisors. He said that “Nobody asked me if I was Catholic when I joined the United States Navy,” he said. “And nobody asked my brother if he was Catholic or Protestant before he climbed into an American bomber plane to fly his last mission.”[23]

The topic of religion was very important at that time and in another occasion, the Sunday before election day, JFK “looked directly into the lens of the camera, into the eyes of the voters, as he delivered an impassioned statement of principle on the separation of church and state. He was deeply persuasive.”[24]

John F. Kennedy understood that non-political talk to the unconvinced was better than political talk to the already convinced.[25] His appearance on Jack Paar Tonight Show[26] in June 1960 showed JFK’s skill to use TV for person­ality projection.[27] In Paar’s introduction of the candidate, he welcomed him to the relaxed atmosphere of the late-night talk show.[28] After a commercial break, Paar apologized for the interruption and John F. Kennedy answered, “No, don’t apologize, that’s how it all operates.”[29] JFK also mentioned the many popular prime-time western series. “I was made an honorary Indian”, he said, “And now I cheer for our side on TV.”[30] At the end of the talk F. Kennedy told Paar, “In campaigning through Wisconsin and West Virginia I ran into a lot of people who sat up nights watching you. And I think anytime it’s possible for those of us in public life to have a chance to communicate, I think we ought to take it. Therefore, I regard it as a privilege to appear on this program.”[31]

Lubin’s volume also gives a television outlook of the United States.

In 1960, 87 percent of American homes, more than 46 million, were equipped with television, at least 25 percent more TV households than existed in 1956. The rivalry among the networks to capture the growing audience was more intense than ever. The conventions would be a showcase for a new look and feel in television reporting. Smaller, lighter, more sensitive TV cameras and walkie-talkie radios al­ lowed correspondents greater mobility on the convention floor. Because of videotape, the natural drama and spectacle of the political conventions could be embellished by the ability to record simultaneous events and structure them through editing. The desultory could be eliminated; the tedious ab­breviated. Improvements in synchronizing TV signals from various sources permitted live remote feeds from outside the convention hall and increased the use of graphic inserts and split-screens. The tremendous expense, with appropriate fanfare, was chalked up to public service.[32]

After the winning of the nomination, JFK asked Reinsch[33] to help him in his electoral campaign and to become a member of his campaign strategy team. “Reinsch recalled the candidate saying, «Television may be the most important part of the campaign. It may decide the election. Will you handle my TV arrangements? » Within forty-eight hours Reinsch was in the John F. Kennedy’s home in Hyannis Port discussing television strategy over clam chowder. The issue of television debates was raised and the candidate wondered what format they might take. «I’m not really concerned about the program», Reinsch told Senator J.F. Kennedy. «All I want is a picture of you and Nixon on the same television tube. We’ll take it from there».”[34]

It is really important to underline that the convention of Republican Party and all the speeches of Nixon in Chicago “was not shared with the television audience.”[35]

JFK-Nixon Debates

There were four televised Great Debates between John F. Kennedy and Nixon. The first debate centred on domestic issues. The high point of the second debate, on 7 October, was disagreement over U.S. involvement in two small islands off the coast of China, and on 13 October, Nixon and JFK continued this dispute. On 21 October, the final debate, the candidates focused on American relations with Cuba. The Great Debates marked television’s grand entrance into Presidential politics. They afforded the first real opportunity for voters to see their candidates in competition, and the visual contrast was dramatic.[36] In August, Nixon had seriously injured his knee and spent two weeks in the hospital. By the time of the first debate he was still twenty pounds underweight, his pallor still poor. He arrived at the debate in an ill-fitting shirt, and refused make-up to improve his color and lighten his perpetual 5:00 o’clock shadow. John F. Kennedy, by contrast, had spent early September campaigning in California. He was tan and confident and well-rested. I had never seen him looking so fit, Nixon later wrote.[37]

There a was a substantial difference between radio and television. People who listened to the radio debate were sure that Nixon was the winner. But, for television viewers (70 million) John F. Kennedy was the winner.[38] “Those television viewers focused on what they saw, not what they heard. Studies of the audience indicated that, among television viewers, JFK was perceived the winner of the first debate by a very large margin.”[39]

The Great Debates represented a turning-point for the American history. They allowed people to be a part of a more complete democracy. It is also possible to claim that “John F. Kennedy would have won the election with or without the Great Debates.”[40]

The volume of Watson gives a clear idea of the impact of the Great Debates:

Yet voters in 1960 did vote with the Great Debates in mind. At election time, more than half of all voters reported that the Great Debates had influenced their opinion; 6% reported that their vote was the result of the debates alone. Thus, regardless of whether the debates changed the election result, voters pointed to the debates as a significant reason for electing JFK. The Great Debates had a significant impact beyond the election of 1960, as well. They served as precedent around the world; soon after the debates, Germany, Sweden, Finland, Italy, and Japan established debates between contenders to national office. Moreover, the Great Debates created a precedent in American Presidential politics. Federal laws requiring that all candidates receive equal air-time stymied debates for the next three elections, as did Nixon’s refusal to debate in 1968 and 1972. Yet by 1976, the law and the candidates had both changed, and ever since, Presidential debates, in one form or another, have been a fixture of U.S. Presidential politics.[41]


It is possible to argue that the “Great Debates forced citizens to rethink how democracy would work in a television era.”[42] In the 60’s, commentators soon realized the great impact of television on American society; in an electoral campaign appearance was more important than a good speech and John F. Kennedy was a perfect example of this condition. “Yet other views express confidence that televised presidential debates remain one of the most effective means to operate a direct democracy.”[43] “The issue then becomes one of improved form rather than changed forum. The Nixon-JFK debates of 1960 brought these questions to the floor. Perhaps as no other single event, the Great Debates forced us to ponder the role of television in democratic life.”[44]

JFK was privileged and handsome, his character tempered by family tragedy and personal pain. The other, Nixon, accustomed to hard work throughout his youth, had common features and a patina of defensiveness about his ordinary roots. In the months that followed, the television networks capitalized on the inherent drama in the hard-fought contest that was filled with conflict and plot twists leading to a cliff-hanger ending.[45]

Then, “John F. Kennedy was the first president to effectively use the new medium of television to speak directly to the American people and it is possible to state that He was also a model for other statesmen for his political use of mass-media and in particular of television.”[46] If we think about John F. Kennedy we remember the President kissing his babies, the press conferences and the Zapruder film of his tragic death. “He was in control even when passionate. On tele­vision, a medium that magnifies personalities and mannerisms, John F. Kennedy’s reserve translated into a dignified, statesmanlike persona.”[47]