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It’s been more than 50 years since America’s first televised presidential debates, but the four TV showdowns between Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy in the fall of 1960 still hold a prominent—and deserved—place in United States political lore.
The details of the debates have been recounted innumerable times in the subsequent decades, with every hand gesture, every utterance and every close-up dissected and weighed for its significance. The stories, meanwhile, of how Nixon showed up to the very first debate looking pale and glistening with sweat beneath the glare of the studio lights, while JFK looked (literally) tanned and rested, haven’t lost any of their power simply because they’re true.
The photos here—many of which never ran in LIFE magazine—back up those stories: Nixon did look like death warmed over; Kennedy did look like a movie star. And while pundits and armchair historians like to assert that Kennedy’s media savvy won him the election while Nixon won the debates, no data exists anywhere that positively proves either point.
The fact is, both men were formidable candidates. Each had a strong grasp of the major issues facing the country—the Space Race with the Soviets; America’s role in an increasingly complex global economy; the Civil Right Movement—and each man had very little trouble articulating his and his party’s position on any and all subjects that would bear on the daily lives of average Americans.
In the end, the four debates in 1960 did offer the nation a good, long look at two very different candidates, with two distinct visions for America’s future. It’s remarkable now, however, to recall that Nixon was just four years older than Kennedy: by the look of the two men in the photographs in this gallery, and certainly in the eyes of the tens of millions of people who tuned in to watch them debate, they might as well have been from entirely different generations.
The 1960 campaign for the White House is often called the first “modern” presidential election. All these years later, one would be hard-pressed to find another element of the race that feels more familiar than the image of a candidate standing at a lectern, trying with every ounce of his not inconsiderable political skill to connect with the vast, invisible electorate out there, watching and listening, somewhere on the other side of the television camera’s unblinking, unforgiving lens.
Photo inset: John F. Kennedy, moderator Howard K. Smith, Richard Nixon, 1960: Francis Miller—The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images