Lesson Plan

Political Debates and the Kennedy-Nixon Debate


This 11-minute video introduces students to the Kennedy-Nixon debates, but also demonstrates how many of the myths and conventional narratives surrounding that debate aren’t supported by historical evidence. It also provides footage and analysis of many of the most famous moments in the history of presidential debating, and explains the function and value of debates in our democratic process. A useful video for any lesson covering the Kennedy-Nixon election, or for teachers who want to contextualize a debate in a current election cycle by showing its connection to the most famous moments from past presidential debates.


  • How technological and cultural changes, such as the rapid growth of television in the 1950s, can come to affect the political process.
  • How media narratives and information from other seemingly reliable sources can create incorrect understandings of historical events.
  • How political debates have impacted modern politics and how they continue to have an impact today.
  • Social Studies
  • U.S. History
  • Civics & Government
  • AP U.S. Government & Politics
  • 1960s America
  • John F. Kennedy
  • Richard Nixon
  • Campaigns and Elections
  • The Postwar Era (1945-1980)
For Teachers

Introducing the Lesson

On September 26, 1960, Senator John F. Kennedy and Vice-President Richard M. Nixon squared off in the first nationally-televised general election debate, and delivered a lasting lesson in the art of politics in the age of media to some 70 million viewers.

Kennedy, the stylish young Democrat from Massachusetts, won the debate because he looked better on television than his Republican rival, Richard Nixon, who appeared ill at ease and washed out.

That perception, at least, has dogged the debate for decades, with journalists and historians repeating it in textbooks and news stories. However, like many of the best stories, it wasn’t actually true, and has been debunked for lack of supporting historical evidence.

Replacing the myth is a more convincing narrative: Kennedy may have looked better on television that night, but that wasn’t the turning point. He won because he demonstrated a better command of policy and presidential poise than did Nixon, who had served the last eight years as vice-president.

Winners aside, the misperceptions about the Kennedy-Nixon debate continue to haunt political coverage today, as network anchors, pundits, and even spin doctors, seem more interested in rating presidential candidates on “performance” rather than platform.

But despite that flaw, the debates continue to offer viewers a rare chance to see their candidates on stage, under pressure, and demonstrating in thought and action what makes them tick.

And viewers vote.

Essential Questions

  • Why do you think President Kennedy won the first debate?
  • How has media coverage of presidential debates over the years become distorted?
  • Why are presidential debates important?

Lesson Procedure

  • The story that Kennedy won the first debate simply because of makeup is a good story but isn’t actually what happened. What are other examples of historical stories that are more entertaining or memorable than they are accurate?
  • The 1960 debates were at the dawn of the television era of US politics. Are we now in the “internet era” of politics? How is the internet era different from the television era?
  • If John Kennedy and Ronald Reagan were effective in working with television, what politicians today are most effective in working with the internet?
  • How could we change the structure or format of political debates to make them more useful to voters?

Additional Resources

Transcript for "Political Debates: What the Unforgettable Moments Reveal"Retro Report 
“Difficult Question: How Much the Clinton-Trump Debate Matters” Retro Report 
"Presidential Debates Aren’t About Style or Substance. They’re About Pressure"Washingtonian 
Audio Interview: "The Myth of Presidential Debates"WNYC 

Analyze a complex set of ideas or sequences of events and explain how specific individuals, ideas, or events interact or develop over the course of a text.

Integrate and evaluate multiple sources of information presented in diverse formats and media (e.g., visually, quantitatively, as well as in words) in order to address a question or solve a problem.

Analyze multiple and complex causes and effect of events in the past.

Evaluate the credibility of a source by examining how experts value the source.

Skill 3.A: Identify and describe a claim and/or argument in a non-text-based source.

Theme 6: America in the World (WOR).

Questions? Tips? Concerns? Reach out to our Director of Education, David Olson: dolson@retroreport.com