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 seen here (and others at LIFE.com) back up those stories: Nixon did look like death warmed over; Kennedy did look like a movie star.
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.
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. Read more at LIFE.com.
It’s been five decades since the first televised presidential debates in U.S. history, 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 American political lore. Read more at LIFE.com.