The Vault

The Pointers Eleanor Roosevelt Gave to JFK After His First Televised Debate With Nixon

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In these notes, Eleanor Roosevelt gave John F. Kennedy feedback on his performance in the first televised presidential debate, held on Sept. 26, 1960. The debate famously juxtaposed a sweaty, sickly-looking Richard Nixon with the tanned Kennedy—an unfavorable visual comparison that has often been cited as a turning point in the campaign.

Roosevelt was a powerful figure within the Democratic Party, and had initially supported Adlai Stevenson for the party’s 1960 presidential nomination. When she publicly commented in 1958 that she had heard that Kennedy’s father was “spending oodles of money” on his campaign, a worried Kennedy implored her to correct herself, lest he look like a spoiled kid manipulated by an influence-seeking father. In a series of letters between the two, they negotiated her revision of the record.

By the time of the September 1960 debate, Roosevelt was aligned with the Democratic Party’s objectives and willing to campaign for Kennedy. The month before, in an installment of her newspaper column “My Day,” Roosevelt described the candidate favorably:

I think Senator Kennedy is anxious to learn. I think he is hospitable to new ideas. He is hard-headed. He calculates the political effect of every move. I left my conversation with him with the feeling that here is a man who wants to leave a record of not only having helped his countrymen, but having helped humanity as a whole.

In his response to her post-debate letter, which he sent on Oct. 10, Kennedy thanked Roosevelt for her comments and added, “I hope you will continue to let me have the benefit of your wise advice and counsel.” 

Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library & Museum Digital Collections. 

Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library & Museum Digital Collections.