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McKeesport Connection to Kennedy-Nixon Debates

January 29, 2016

The most well-known televised presidential debate took place 56 years ago between Republican Richard M. Nixon and the Democrat John F. Kennedy.

It is widely believed that the first Kennedy-Nixon televised debate in 1960 ushered in the modern day theory that “style” always trumps substance when it comes to presidential debates. In their debate, Kennedy looked cool and self-assured before millions of television viewers while Nixon came across as tired and nervous.

It is also true that prior to the debate Kennedy had prepped himself with a team of friends and advisers and took a relaxed attitude about the ensuing debate. For his preparation, Nixon sequestered himself alone in his Chicago hotel room to pour over briefing materials and statistics

Nixon was not feeling well on the night of the debate and had recently been released from the hospital for a knee infection he had suffered two weeks earlier. The campaign trail was grueling and Nixon had lost five pounds since his release from the hospital. To make matters worse, on his way to the debate Nixon accidentally struck his knee again getting out of his car, causing further pain just before arriving at the television studio.

For those who listened to the presidential debate on the radio most came away believing Nixon had won - but for the millions who tuned in to view the debate on television - Kennedy was the clear winner.

What few realize is that the first 1960 presidential debate was actually the second Kennedy-Nixon debate. The first occurred in 1947 when they were freshman members of Congress. The freshman lawmakers agreed to debate the merits of the Labor-Management Relations Act, known as the Taft-Hartley Act of 1948.

The debate took place before a local audience in the ballroom of the Penn McKee Hotel in McKeesport, Pennsylvania. Both men made the trip from Washington by train at the request of local Congressman Frank Buchanan. Nixon argued against the proposed legislation while Kennedy supported the labor-backed bill.

It was generally conceded that Nixon won the debate, although President Kennedy may have had the last word when he reportedly remarked much later about his McKeesport experience, "We both then went on to other things."

It’s hard to imagine now but not all recent presidential candidates have agreed to debate. In 1964, Lyndon Johnson would not debate Barry Goldwater; Richard Nixon would not debate Hubert Humphrey in 1968; and Nixon also refused to debate George McGovern in 1972. President Carter in 1980 seriously considered not debating Ronald Reagan - which in hindsight might have been a good strategy.

The Penn McKee Hotel is only a memory now but on one spring evening in 1947 it made history when it hosted a lively debate between Congressman Nixon and Congressman Kennedy.

No one knew at that time just how important and popular Presidential debates would become. Nor did these two freshman Congressmen know they would one-day meet again on the national debate stage for the most important debate of their lives – the office of President of the United States.