Rare footage of the first televised presidential debate in U.S. history has been put online by the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, giving voters a chance to see the dramatic change in debate tone and style since 1956.
The video captures a debate between Adlai Stevenson II and Estes Kefauver during the 1956 Democratic primary campaign. ABC broadcast it May 21 from Miami just before Florida voters went to the polls. It was moderated by journalist Quincy Howe.
Only two copies of the debate are known to exist, and neither has been generally available to the public until now. The ALPLM has made a digital version of its 16mm film copy of the hour-long debate.
It can be seen on YouTube at bit.ly/1956debate.
“This video captures two politicians from an earlier era experimenting with a powerful new force – television. The Lincoln Presidential Library is proud to dig into its huge collection and make this video available to the world,” said Nadine O’Leary, the ALPLM’s acting executive director.
In contrast to today’s frequently negative and personal political debates, the Stevenson-Kefauver debate shows candidates stressing their common views and staying polite when disagreeing. Each got three minutes for an opening statement and five minutes – an eternity in modern debates – to close.
Stevenson, the former Illinois governor, won the Democratic nomination over Kefauver, a Tennessee senator. He went on to lose the general election to Dwight Eisenhower.
Stevenson’s son, former U.S. Sen. Adlai Stevenson III, speaks Thursday at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum about his family’s 150-year legacy in state and national politics. Information is available at www.PresidentLincoln.illinois.gov under “special event reservations.”
Debate topics included school desegregation, small business, nuclear energy and the news that America had detonated a hydrogen bomb.
“The future is either going to be a future of creativity and great abundance or it’s going to be a future of total incineration, death and destruction,” Stevenson said, advocating American leadership in controlling atomic weapons.
Both men promised support for the Supreme Court’s ruling that schools could no longer be segregated by race.
“This is something where you can’t use military coercion. We’ve got to appeal to the hearts and minds and to the fairness of people,” Kefauver said, 16 months before President Eisenhower used troops to enforce desegregation of an Arkansas high school.
The Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, a division of the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency, is dedicated to telling the story of America’s 16th president through old-fashioned scholarship and modern technology.
The library holds an unparalleled collection of Lincoln books, documents, photographs, artifacts and art, as well as some 12 million items pertaining to all aspects of Illinois history. The museum uses traditional exhibits, eye-catching special effects and innovative story-telling techniques to educate visitors.