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Jerry Weissman Headshot

Nixon Kennedy + 50

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On September 26, 1960 Richard M. Nixon, the sitting Vice President, met Senator John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts in the first-ever televised debate between candidates for the U.S. presidency. By virtue of his superior presentation skills, Kennedy, the underdog, was able to reverse field by winning the debate and, ultimately, the election. The event was to change the face of politics forever.

Fast forward 50 years to last Thursday's first-ever televised debate among candidates for the Prime Minister of Britain. Gordon Brown, the sitting Prime Minister and the head of the Labour Party, who had been locked in a too-close-to-call race with the Conservative Party's David Cameron, met in a three-man debate with underdog Nick Clegg, the candidate of the perennial also-ran third party, the Liberal Democrats.

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As the London Telegraph reported, three instant polls taken after the debate declared Mr. Clegg the winner:

  • Research by YouGov for The Sun in the immediate aftermath of the 90-minute session suggested the Lib Dem leader had impressed voters most. Mr Clegg was rated as the most impressive by 51 per cent, a clear lead over Mr Cameron on 29 per cent and The Prime Minister on 19 per cent.
  • A ComRes poll for ITV News also found that Mr Clegg had emerged victorious.
  • He was rated as the winner by 43 per cent of the 4,032 viewers polled, nearly double Mr Cameron's score of 26 per cent and Mr Brown's 20 per cent.

The results reverberated across the Atlantic where the New York Times reported that "political commentators are starting to say that the televised debate had the effect of a political volcano, remolding the electoral landscape." The report described Mr. Clegg as "a trim, tall, multilingual 43-year-old in a well-tailored suit, [who is] is nothing if not cool."

When John Kennedy debated Richard Nixon, he was trim, tall, cool, and 43 years old.

The Times concluded that Mr. Clegg's coolness was "the quality that appears to have transmitted itself to the television audience."

A description of the 1960 debate on the Museum of Broadcasting website states that "those who heard the first debate on the radio pronounced Nixon the winner. But the 70 million who watched television saw a candidate...obviously discomforted by Kennedy's smooth delivery and charisma."

Is history about to repeat?