As millions of Americans prepare to watch one of the most anticipated presidential debates ever, between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, it’s worthwhile to evaluate previous debates for a sense of what we should look for this year. What have been the best moments? What were the worst? When did our presidents and presidential candidates remind us of the best that our democracy has to offer—and when did their gaffes make us cringe for our country?
John Kennedy (1960): Of all the televised presidential debates that have since become the stuff of legend, none are as important as the very first one. Seventy million people tuned in on September 26, 1960, to see Democratic candidate John Kennedy face off against Republican candidate Richard Nixon. The expectations couldn’t have been higher for Kennedy, whose comparative inexperience caused many to doubt whether he was up to the job of being president. Fortunately for Democrats, Kennedy instinctively understood what it took to excel in this format—namely, that you had to talk to the camera rather than your opponent. As journalist and historian Theodore H. White laterexplained, “For Mr. Nixon was debating with Mr. Kennedy as if a board of judges was scoring points; he rebutted and refuted, as he went, the inconsistencies or errors of his opponent. Nixon was addressing himself to Kennedy—but Kennedy was addressing himself to the audience that was the nation.”