My Reaction to the 1956 & 1960 Democratic Primary Debates

While the Kennedy v Nixon debate was the first televised debate of a general election, this primary debate came 4 years earlier. It was considered pretty dull, even at the time, because of how polite the discourse was and how unexciting both the candidates are. Still, for me as a budding Stevenson fan, this is pretty cool to see. It’s hard to find video of his celebrated speeches anywhere, so I’ll take what I can get. I can see how a war hero from the recent WWII would come off more appealing to the people of the ’50s, but as someone looking back in time, I see Eisenhower to be at least as “dull” as Stevenson in terms of oration and charisma standards if not more so. As for this debate itself, I have nothing to say, it’s largely unmemorable.

The 1960 Kennedy vs Humphrey Debate

I’m not sure whether this or the Johnson vs Kennedy debate (which I cannot find online) aired first, but depending on the order this is either the second or third televised debate between Presidential candidates in history. This is a pretty funny dynamic: with all due respect, some may accuse JFK to be overrated as President due to his assassination and subsequent legendary status which has overshadowed his shortcomings. But nobody can deny that Kennedy was an amazing public speaker. I’d say probably the single most eloquent in modern history, with only Nixon and perhaps Obama rivaling him for the distinction. Humphrey just isn’t, at all, but he thinks he is. He’s from the school of writing where throwing enough adjectives around and using a thesaurus haphazardly somehow elevates what you’re saying. You can tell he’s trying to sound smarter than he really is, where to Kennedy it just comes effortlessly.

JFK blows Humphrey out of the water during their opening statements, both in delivery and in rhetoric. Humphrey has a very distinct way of speaking; he has a signature nasal, whiny voice that’s off putting to listen to. JFK sounds a lot more like a typical leader does in your mind. This might seem petty or stupid to comment on, but little subliminal issues like this are more important than you may think; appearances matter. Just as Nixon lost people by sweating and not wearing makeup in his own contest against Kennedy, I’d bet money the differences in Humphrey and Kennedy’s voices attracted people to the latter. What’s more important though, is in how Kennedy appeals to history (Washington), facts/figures and the local industry, as well as to the state of WV itself (“I’m glad I came here, I think every Presidential candidate should,” etc). Humphrey’s opening statement is a lot like his 1968 acceptance speech— a bunch of flowery platitudes, little substance. He’s a guy who sounds like he’s pandering whether he is or isn’t. What’s more, he goes over-time. (A common occurrence these days, but with this being only the second or third televised debate EVER it’s especially bad form.) I could tell the moderator was miffed by it, especially since it’s only the beginning of the debate.

In Humphrey’s first response he seems to be playing a game of “pile on as many positive adjectives on WV to compensate as possible.” It’s pretty awkward to watch. He does pick up from there though, when he goes into the despicable slums in major cities he wants the government to address. But I think with the words “What I was trying to say in my opening statement” he shot himself in the foot, at least somewhat. That’s not a good look at all, having to clarify your own words like that, and immediately after saying them in the first place. He should have phrased it “as I was saying earlier…” or something closer to that. But by phrasing it as he did, it’s like Humphrey himself is acknowledging that his point is often lost in his own overly fanciful platitudes. (And for the record, it is.)

Another aspect of this debate that interested me was the format. It begins with one opening statement and one rebuttal apiece, then halfway through it goes into a Q&A period. I dig this format as well. Really, it’s amazing to me upon reading the Lincoln Douglas debates and seeing all these previous models from the past, why we now structure our Presidential debates in the literal worst way possible. I cannot say enough, we ought to give the candidates at least 10, 15 minutes each to lay down their policies in full. I(‘d go even further than that and say 30 minutes.) Then give times for rebuttals and so on. The way we do it now with just one moderator essentially acting as gatekeeper to the whole process (by being in charge of what questions are asked) and the candidates only having one minute at a time to talk is sheer madness. It’s entertainment, not a rational policy discussion. Honestly, I think that’s intentional by the powers that be, to prevent a truly substantive look into their policies.

It’s interesting listening to Kennedy say he’d agree to recognize China but only if certain conditions are met, and that he doesn’t believe the Soviets are acting in good faith when they press us for disarmament. I’m curious if Kennedy would have went to China like Nixon did had he lived longer, or similarly, if Nixon would have earlier if he won the 1960 election. At the same time, I’m curious if Kennedy felt more or less sure about disarmament and the Soviet’s sincerity after the Cuban Missile Crisis. Just some food for thought.

I do like Humphrey’s answer on sit-ins by Black Americans, where he unequivocally comes out in support of them. I criticize Humphrey a lot, and I’ll admit I don’t think he’s a bad guy so much as he’s like Nixon and Hillary—he wants it too much. He desperately wanted to be President, all else be damned. For that and more, I dislike him. But I think Humphrey started out a lot more honorable than he became. And this issue of support for black communities is a topic where he was very passionate, and one he supported long before it was “cool” (the 1948 DNC, in a very famous speech in fact). I think it’s important to give the man his due credit on this one. That said, the difference between his long winded answer and Kennedy’s straightforward, one sentence reply is gold. That single moment perhaps best sums up this entire debate, really.

I think Humphrey gets the edge on Kennedy at the end when the latter starts to get touchy about who other politicians are supporting in the primary, and Humphrey respectfully, coolly, replies that there were no complaints when Kennedy was further ahead in the polls earlier in the race. This is the one key moment where Humphrey appears far more confident and collected than Kennedy does.

Overall, this is a fun debate to watch. It’s a little dry because this type of event was still new and they hadn’t worked the kinks out yet. But it’s far more interesting than the ’76, ’80, ’84 or ’96 general election debates, or the 1984 primary debates. It’s definitely worth checking out for the historical aspect: to see Kennedy, and since this might just be the only surviving Humphrey debate.

1 Comment

  1. This analysis covers two significant debates. The first to be on TV as well as first with JFK. Your review seems very fair and balanced. I liked that even though you clearly liked Kennedy better you still conceded that Humphry got the edge at the end. It is good to see these historical politicians. I remembered the name Kefauver but had forgotten who he was. Another good job Cassie,

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