Presidential debate: 7 defining moments in history (+video)

Republican Vice President Richard M. Nixon, left, debates Sen. John F. Kennedy, the Democratic presidential nominee, during a live broadcast from a New York television studio on Oct. 21, 1960. AP/File

President Obama and Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney are preparing for their upcoming debates, memorizing facts and figures as well as strategizing on tone and body language. Since the first televised debate between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon in 1960, presidential debates have been as much "show business," according to President George H.W. Bush, as they are civic exchanges of political ideas. 

From Ronald Reagan’s one-liner, “There you go again,” to Al Gore’s heavy sighs and eye rolls, zingers and mannerisms can define a presidential debate even more than the candidates’ positions on critical issues. Here is a look back at seven defining debate moments.

1960: John F. Kennedy vs. Richard Nixon

Vice President Nixon (R) was favored to win the 1960 presidential election, but the first-ever televised presidential debates gave an unexpected edge to his rival, Senator Kennedy (D). 

The first debate on Sept. 26, 1960, pitted a fit and tan Kennedy against a sweaty and pale Nixon. Nixon refused to wear makeup, and his light-colored suit blended with the studio backdrop.

Appearance matters, especially on TV. The four Nixon-Kennedy “great debates” aren’t remembered for the substance of the issues – they spent an inordinate amount of time discussing China’s plan for two tiny Pacific islands – but they gave the lesser-known Kennedy a chance to reach some 70 million voters, who tuned in for the first debate.

That, at least, was Kennedy's view, according to Newton Minow, the man he appointed to chair the Federal Communications Commission. The debates "stoked the public appetite for and the modern campaign's emphasis on the image and the sound byte," Mr. Minton wrote in his book, "Inside the Presidential Debates."

1 of 7
Make a Difference
Inspired? Here are some ways to make a difference on this issue.
FREE Newsletters
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.