Download this lesson plan, including handouts, as a pdf.
Topic: The Kennedy/Nixon Debate
Grade level: 7-12
Subject Area: US History, Civics, Government
Time Required: 1-2 class periods
Political debates are an important part of the election process, whether on the local, state or national level. On September 26, 1960, an estimated seventy million Americans, about 2/3 of the electorate, watched Senator John F. Kennedy and Vice President Richard M. Nixon face each other in the first live televised presidential debate.
After the debate, Kennedy turned to his advisors for an analysis and feedback. Clark Clifford, a Kennedy family attorney and presidential advisor, sent his assessment of the debate to JFK in a memo, offering advice to the candidate.
In this lesson plan, students analyze excerpts from the first debate and Clifford’s memo. They then identify a candidate they support in a current election and, using the Clifford memo as a model, watch a political debate to consider the strengths and weaknesses of the candidate and provide written advice to him or her for future debates.
In what ways are voters persuaded to support a particular candidate?
Students will be able to:
- analyze a primary source.
- consider what makes a candidate a “winner” or “loser” in a debate.
- determine what issues are important to the student in an upcoming election.
- select a candidate they think most aligns with their views of the issues.
- watch a debate and evaluate the performance of the candidates.
- write a memo to their chosen candidate giving him or her advice on how to improve his/her performance for a future debate.
Connections to Curriculum (Standards)
National Civics and History
Center for Civic Education: V.E. How can citizens take part in civic life?
National Center for History in the Schools: Era 9, 3B Examine the role of the media in the election of 1960.
MA Framework – American Government
USG.5.4 Research the platforms of political parties and candidates for state or local government and explain how citizens in the United States participate in public elections as voters and supporters of candidates for public office.
Prior Knowledge and Skills
Students should know how to analyze a piece of text. They also should have some knowledge of current issues and events on a local, state, and national level.
Historical Background and Context
Cold War concerns permeated this debate, which was focused on domestic issues. As the incumbent Vice President, Nixon highlighted the successes of the Eisenhower years while Kennedy attempted to show its failings. Nixon compared the record of the Eisenhower Administration with the previous Democratic administration of Truman to show that the US had prospered over the Eisenhower years. He contrasted his proposals for education, health and housing which would require less government spending with Kennedy’s proposals which he believed relied too much on the federal government and would suppress the “creative energies” of Americans. Kennedy criticized the untapped manufacturing and scientific potential of the US and inefficiencies in agricultural policies during the previous seven years as well as expressing concern about racial discrimination that denied opportunities for African Americans and Latinos. Both debaters responded to questions about their experience and their ability and work with Congress.
- JFK in History: Campaign of 1960
- Excerpts from September 26, 1960 Debate (included in lesson plan pdf)
- Clark M. Clifford Memo, dated September 27, 1960 (included in lesson plan pdf)
- Debate Score Sheet (included in lesson plan pdf)
- Have students read JFK in History: Campaign of 1960 to provide historical background on the debates.
- Have students read excerpts from the September 26, 1960 debate. (The entire debate is available from a link on the JFK in History: Campaign of 1960 web page.)
- Provide students with a Clark M. Clifford memo to JFK dated September 27, 1960.
- Discuss the following:
a. What points did Clifford make in writing that Kennedy was “the winner”? (JFK was concise, convincing, and kept Nixon on the defensive)
b. Brainstorm how a candidate can be convincing, and how he/she may keep the other candidate on the defensive.
c. What were Clifford’s main concerns? (Kennedy should make sure voters know that his political goals are different from Nixon’s; he needs to differentiate himself; and he needs to show more personal warmth.)
d. Why would it be important for the challenger to differentiate his goals from the incumbent administration?
e. What were Clifford’s suggestions for dealing with these concerns? (JFK should be specific in bringing up the differences in their goals; he should bring up his discussions with ordinary people and his contacts with Navy servicemen to show he understands the concerns of average Americans.)
- Use Clifford’s concerns and suggestions as you discuss with your students the important attributes that make a candidate a “winner” of a debate.
- Brainstorm the issues in an upcoming election in your area. Write them on the board. Have students discuss where they stand on the issues.
- Have students research where the candidates stand on these issues, and have them write a one-page paper describing which candidate’s views are most compatible with their own and why.
For homework, have students watch a political debate, filling in a “score sheet” handout to help them evaluate the debate. (We have suggested a few attributes in the handout, but you should add your own based on your previous brainstorming with students.) Have them use their “score sheet” to write a memo to their chosen candidate in the style of Clark Clifford noting:
- who they think “won” the debate.
- what worked or didn’t work for their candidate.
- how their candidate can help to improve his/her image.
- what their candidate can do to better persuade voters that he/she is the right choice for them.
Encourage students to use their memo as a way to give specific help to their candidate, not as an opportunity to denigrate the other candidate.