The Kennedy-Goldwater debates have been called the seminal political event in modern American history. Certainly their impact on how American presidential campaigns are conducted has been immense, with debates in the style of the Kennedy-Goldwater debates being conducted in every following presidential contest. One initial question that puzzles when looking back at those debates is why President Kennedy agreed to them. Unlike 1960, the 1964 presidential election did not appear to likely be a close contest. The unemployment rate was five percent, and inflation, at one percent, was a non-factor. Kennedy had earned quite a bit of popular sympathy due to the death of Mrs. Kennedy in the assassination attempt by Lee Harvey Oswald in Dallas on November 22, 1963. Kennedy had been shattered by her death, and gave serious thought to not running for reelection in 1964, and retiring after one term. However, he quickly realized that this would make his vice-president the all but certain Democratic nominee in 1964, a fact that Kennedy found distasteful for two reasons that Kennedy noted to his press secretary Pierre Salinger: “The thought of Lyndon as the nominee frightens me. First, he might lose and, second, he might win.”
Kennedy and Goldwater were friends. Both World War II veterans, they each were elected to the Senate in 1952. Despite their partisan differences, they quickly became the closest of political adversaries. In 1963 they began to discuss a series of debates, modeled on the Lincoln-Douglas debates.
The nomination process for each of the parties was a study in contrasts. Kennedy had no opposition for the Democrat nomination, while Goldwater’s nomination was the culmination of a long going feud in the Republican party between conservative and liberal factions. By the time of his nomination, Goldwater was the leader of a badly fractured party, and the polls indicated he had no chance to win the election. Kennedy advisors counseled him not to debate Goldwater at all, and if a debate were held, to do so in the 1960 format that had served Kennedy so well. Kennedy rejected the advice. He had promised Goldwater debates in the Lincoln-Douglas format. Reneging now would cause him to go back on his word, and, perhaps, indicate that he was afraid to face Goldwater, an imputation that Kennedy could not allow.
Goldwater benefited greatly from the debates. The Republican convention had been a disaster for him, and most of the media was attempting to portray Goldwater as a trigger happy ideologue who might start a nuclear war. The debate format, where the candidates spent a fair amount of time asking each other questions directly without a moderator, allowed Goldwater’s essentially genial personality to shine through. Kennedy also stumbled on the question of Vietnam, displaying a fair amount of ambivalence as to what should be done. Kennedy won decisively, 54% to 46%, but the election was not the rout that the early campaign polls had predicted. Polls indicated that the public loved the debate format, and the ratings for the debates indicated that the polls were accurate.
The torment of the Kennedy second term is well known, with the radical expansion of government under Kennedy’s New Frontier initiative, increasing racial turbulence over Civil Rights, but most of all Vietnam. Initially Kennedy increased American involvement in 1965, sending American combat units to shore up the government of South Vietnam. Kennedy was shocked at the vociferous reaction of his liberal base to this, and in 1966 attempted abortive negotiations with the government of North Vietnam. His unilateral withdrawal of American troops from South Vietnam in 1967, and the rapid fall of South Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia to Communist insurgents, shocked the nation. Pictures of desperate Vietnamese fleeing by sea to seek refuge led the nightly news for weeks. One of the most vociferous critics of President Kennedy’s Vietnam policy was Senator Barry Goldwater.
1968 was the mirror image of 1964. Goldwater led a united Republican party while Vice President Johnson helmed a badly divided Democratic party, a party whose divisions had been on full display both within and without the Democratic convention in Chicago. Goldwater had no need to debate Johnson, but he did so in the Lincoln-Douglas debate style of 1964. Commentators who knew the well earned bombastic reputation of Johnson were shocked that in the debates he came across as very carefully spoken, and quiet. Wags wondered how many tranquilizer darts had been shot into Johnson. In any case the debates did not help him, with Goldwater winning with 50% of the vote. Alabama Governor George Wallace took 13% of the vote and 45 electoral votes in the deep south, running on a populist, and overtly racist, outsider platform. What Goldwater did as President will be examined on another occasion.