This blog and the accompanying worksheet are part of a Shaped monthly series providing teachers of Grades 6–12 with downloadable U.S. history classroom resources and discussion topics.
It was the night of September 26, 1960. Across the country, Americans witnessed the airing of an innovation in history: The first of the four Kennedy-Nixon debates—the first presidential debates ever to be televised.
It was the birth of a new era in presidential politics—one where candidates were judged not only for what they said but also for how they appeared on screen. In the first debate, Kennedy appeared well-tanned and rested, while Nixon appeared pale and tense, even sweaty. Surveys showed that those who watched the debate on TV thought Kennedy won the debate, whereas those listening only on the radio gave the edge to Nixon. The debate brought the Cold War issues of the day into living rooms nationwide, resulting in an election tradition that continues today.
With President Donald Trump and former Vice President and Democratic nominee Joe Biden taking the stage this fall, and with vice presidential candidates also set to debate in October, now is the perfect time to teach your students about the legacy of the Kennedy-Nixon debates and their long-term impact. Download the 1960 election lesson plan below to explore what has happened since TV and politics first collided—and the role the media has played in elections ever since.
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