The Kennedy-Nixon Debates in Public History

The 1960 presidential debates were a key moment in the careers of both Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy. For Kennedy, the debates were a pivotal moment in his political career that earned him the presidency. For Nixon, the debates were a stain on his political record that cost him the presidency in 1960. Each of their presidential libraries commemorates the debates and each frames the debates in ways that suit their own interests. In the Nixon Presidential Library, the debates were manipulated (at one time) to make it seem as if Nixon had won them. Nixon was presented as knowledgeable and confident, while Kennedy was made to seem timid. In the Kennedy Library, manipulation of the debates is much more subtle. More than fifty years after the debates took place, a battle is still being waged by each candidate’s supporters to rewrite history in support of their candidate.

First Kennedy-Nixon Debate

Richard Nixon Presidential Library

Nixon Library

It is generally agreed upon among historians and scholars that the Richard Nixon Presidential Library manipulated the debates of 1960 to portray Nixon in a more positive light. While the library’s museum did have a section dedicated to the debates, certain aspects of the debates were completely forgotten. In the museum, there were no video segments from the first debate in which Kennedy won. It seems that the Nixon Library wanted to avoid any negative portrayal of Nixon based on his performance or his appearance during that debate. However, there were videos of Nixon from the second and third debates, in which he performed better. In addition to this, the video reels that were presented to viewers had been altered. They had been altered so that one could only hear Nixon’s comments. The few clips that did show Kennedy make him appear timid and quiet. The Nixon Library’s one-sided version of the debates had been widely criticized by scholars. In the early 2000s the library was eventually turned over to the administration of the National Archives, following a legal battle. Since its administration was turned over to the National Archives, a new director has been appointed and its exhibits have been revised.

Richard Nixon Presidential Library

John F. Kennedy Presidential Library

Kennedy Library

The Kennedy Presidential Library takes a different approach to portraying the debates. Although the library is undoubtedly biased, it is to a much lesser degree than the Nixon Library. The library’s museum contains a recreation of the studio in which the first televised debate took place. In his analysis, Frank Riggg contends that the museum places the debates in context that allows the visitors to fully understand them. However, it is worth noting that the museum chose that the museum chose to focus on the first debate, especially since it is the debate that Kennedy won.  Although it is not extremely biased like the Nixon Library was, the debates are still modified in a way to support the library’s agenda.

The Kennedy Presidential library continues the legacy of the 1960 debates in other ways as well. In addition to the exhibit in its museum, the Kennedy Library also partnered with Comcast in 2011 to promote on-demand videos relating to John F. Kennedy. These videos included speeches, newsreels, campaign commercials, and, most notably, presidential debates. These videos were made available to millions of Comcast customers to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Kennedy’s presidency. The Kennedy Library definitely has an interest in promoting the 1960 presidential debates, especially since Kennedy is remembered as being the most presidential and having won the presidency because of them.

John F. Kennedy Presidential Library

Altered and Forgotten Histories

For each of the candidates, their presidential library naturally does its best to present the most positive image of its president. In doing so, they focus the majority of their attention of positive moments and tend to ignore the moment’s context. For example, the Nixon Library chose to focus on the second and third debates with Kennedy since he performed much better than he had in the first debate. The first debate is completely ignored. The Kennedy Library also focuses its attention on the first debate, since it is generally believed by the American public that Kennedy won that debate. The Kennedy Library also largely ignores the other debates, however. It is also worth noting that the fact that Kennedy broke the debate rules by using notes is overlooked.

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