Document of the Week: The Birth of the Televised Presidential Debate Was a Sober Affair. Then Came Trump.

In an earlier age, the Democratic and Republican front-runners reserved their sharpest criticism for the Soviet Union and treated each other with respect.

Republican Vice President Richard Nixon and Democratic Sen. John F. Kennedy
Republican Vice President Richard Nixon and Democratic Sen. John F. Kennedy take part in a televised debate in 1960. Hulton Archive/Getty Images

President Donald Trump’s boorish performance in the first—and possibly last—U.S. presidential debate this year, which was marked by serial interruptions, insults, and little actual debating, has many questioning the value of future televised presidential exchanges. The debate—which was moderated by Fox News anchor Chris Wallace on Tuesday—went so far off the rails that the presidential debates commission is now mulling whether to impose some new rules, like cutting off the mic if the candidates interrupt their rival’s remarks.

It also showed how far the United States has come as a country since the nation first began broadcasting presidential debates in September 1960, when then-Sen. John F. Kennedy took on then-Vice President Richard Nixon. The televised performance—the transcript of which we are highlighting as our Document of the Week—was a master class in political restraint and decorum.

The two candidates never interrupted each other, hurled a single personal insult, or questioned each other’s mental fitness or loyalty to the nation. Kennedy didn’t refer to Nixon as a liar or clown, as Biden called Trump. And Nixon never accused Kennedy of being a closet extremist or socialist, as Trump frequently refers to Biden.

They debated the minutiae of policy differences on the economy, health care, Social Security, and the need to maintain America’s military, economic, and political edge over its foreign adversaries. Nixon repeatedly agreed with Kennedy on many of the goals for advancing the country’s economic and political well-being, but he differed on the means for achieving them.

But the debate also differed in a critical way: It placed U.S. foreign policy at the center of the discussion. Like the Trump-Biden debate, the Kennedy-Nixon debate was supposed to be restricted “to internal or domestic American matters,” according to the moderator, Howard K. Smith. But it was impossible to ignore the Soviet Union—whose Premier Nikita Khrushchev happened to be visiting New York to attend the United Nations General Assembly debate.

In his opening remarks, Kennedy expressed alarm over the Soviet Union’s economic advances, noting that it could produce more electric power than the United States by 1975 and warning that it might one day threaten America’s dominance.

“We discuss tonight domestic issues, but I would not want that to be any implication to be given that this does not involve directly our struggle with Mr. Khrushchev for survival,” Kennedy said. “Mr. Khrushchev is in New York, and he maintains the Communist offensive throughout the world because of the productive power of the Soviet Union itself. … I’m not satisfied when the Soviet Union is turning out twice as many scientists and engineers as we are.”

Kennedy said the United States needed to invest more energy and money at home in strengthening the American economy to compete with the Soviet Union, as well as Communist China, on the world stage. “I want people in Latin America and Africa and Asia to start to look to America; to see how we’re doing things; to wonder what the resident of the United States is doing; and not to look at Khrushchev, or look at the Chinese Communists.”

“If the United States fails, then the whole cause of freedom fails,” he said.

Nixon concurred. “The things that Senator Kennedy has said many of us can agree with,” Nixon said. “There is no question but that we cannot discuss our internal affairs in the United States without recognizing that they have a tremendous bearing on our international position. There is no question but that this nation cannot stand still; because we are in a deadly competition, a competition not only with the men in the Kremlin, but the men in Peking.”

For his own part, Nixon cited the role he played in foreign policy under the Eisenhower administration to underscore his experience on matters of state. Asked by one of the four television journalists on the panel—all white men—what policies he had ever convinced President Dwight D. Eisenhower to enact, he turned to his foreign travels.

“After my first trip abroad … I strongly recommended that we increase our exchange programs particularly as they related to exchange of persons of leaders in the labor field and in the information field. After my trip to South America, I made recommendations that a separate inter-American lending agency be set up. … After my trip abroad to Hungary I made some recommendations with regard to the Hungarian refugee situation which were adopted, not only by the president but some of them were enacted into law by the Congress.”

Certainly mild stuff if you compare it to Nixon’s later role as president in brokering a strategic American economic relationship with China, which Trump is now seeking to dismantle. But then-Vice President Nixon still had a long way to go to prove his foreign-policy bona fides. Shortly before the debate, a reporter had asked Eisenhower to name a major idea of Nixon’s that he adopted. Eisenhower answered: “If you give me a week, I might think of one.”

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch

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