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Background to the Kennedy-Nixon Debates
The U.S. presidential election of 1960 came at a decisive time in American history. The country was engaged in a heated Cold War with the Soviet Union, which had just taken the lead in the space race by launching the Sputnik satellite. The rise of Fidel Castro’s revolutionary regime in Cuba had heightened fears about the spread of communism in the Western Hemisphere. On the domestic front, the struggle for civil rights and desegregation had deeply divided the nation, raising crucial questions about the state of democracy in the United States.At a time when the need for strong leadership was all too obvious, two vastly different candidates vied for the presidency: John F. Kennedy, a young but dynamic Massachusetts senator from a powerful New England family, and Richard Nixon, a seasoned lawmaker who was currently serving as vice president. With little more than a single unremarkable term in the U.S. senate under his belt, the 43-year-old Kennedy lacked Nixon’s extensive foreign policy experience and had the disadvantage of being one of the first Catholics to run for president on a major party ticket. Nixon, by contrast, had spent nearly eight years as the country’s second-in-command after an illustrious career in Congress during which he cast crucial votes on a variety of domestic issues, became one of global communism’s most outspoken critics and helped expose Alger Hiss’ alleged espionage attempt–all by the age of 39.The rivals campaigned tirelessly throughout the summer of 1960, with Nixon inching ahead in the polls to gain a slim lead. When the season began to turn, however, so did the tables. Nixon took a major hit in August when a reporter asked President Dwight D. Eisenhower to name some of his vice president’s contributions. Exhausted and irritated after a long press conference, Eisenhower replied, “If you give me a week, I might think of one. I don’t remember.” (While the remark was intended as a self-deprecating reference to the president’s own mental fatigue, the Democrats promptly used it in a television commercial that ended with the statement: “President Eisenhower could not remember, but the voters will remember.”) That same month, Nixon bashed his knee on a car door while campaigning in North Carolina and developed an infection that landed him in the hospital; he emerged two weeks later frail, sallow and 20 pounds underweight.