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The First Televised Presidential Debate

November 4, 1956

Eleanor Roosevelt and Margaret Chase Smith on Face the Nation in Washington, D.C., on November 4, 1956

Which presidential campaign produced the first nationally televised debate? The typical answer to that question is 1960, Kennedy v. Nixon. In fact, the first televised debate occurred four years earlier, when Democratic candidate Adlai Stevenson challenged incumbent Republican president Dwight Eisenhower—but those two men did not appear in the debate. Instead, on November 4, 1956, two surrogates debated the issues on network television: for the Democrats, former First Lady and party icon Eleanor Roosevelt; for the Republicans, the senior senator from Maine, Margaret Chase Smith. That’s right—the first televised presidential debate featured two women.

By 1956 Margaret Chase Smith was in her second term in the Senate and had known Eleanor Roosevelt for two decades. “I respected and admired Mrs. Roosevelt for her intelligence and active leadership,” wrote Smith in her autobiography. Smith had been a frequent visitor to the Roosevelt White House and had appeared on the First Lady’s radio program. They both published a daily newspaper column. By 1956 both women routinely appeared on lists of America’s most admired women.

As the 1956 campaign began, Roosevelt emerged as Adlai Stevenson’s strongest advocate. She played such a crucial role in cinching his nomination that she became known as the “Heroine of the Convention” and then proved to be a skilled campaigner. Senator Smith also was a seasoned politician by this time. She gained national attention in 1950 when she took on Joe McCarthy, became the first woman to serve on the Armed Services Committee in 1953, and in 1954 easily trounced her opponent to gain reelection. When the Republican National Committee was looking for a worthy opponent for Eleanor Roosevelt, Smith was the logical choice.

The forum for debate was the CBS program Face the Nation, then in its second season, and this was the first time a woman appeared on that program. Although Smith was not yet sure of her debating skills, she was confident that she could offer a strong argument in support of Eisenhower. For that reason, she insisted on a two-minute closing statement, and CBS reluctantly agreed. Smith then carefully calculated choices in wardrobe and hairstyle, to provide a contrast to the more grandmotherly Roosevelt. She also considered demeanor. She had to be forceful, but polite; knowledgeable, yet demure. “I would answer the questions as briefly as possible,” Smith decided, and in an “even-pitched tone.”

The event took place two days before the election, and focused almost entirely on issues of foreign policy. As planned, Smith remained poised and taciturn, a strategy that allowed the more talkative Roosevelt to dominate—until the closing statements. Then, Smith offered a forceful, concise argument that touched on many key issues. “What was surprising” about the final statement “was my abrupt change in delivery,” Smith recalled. “It was not the soft, restrained, measured delivery” of the debate; rather, “it was a biting staccato.” This change in demeanor unnerved and angered Eleanor Roosevelt, who refused to shake hands after the debate.

Who won the debate? Public reaction was mixed, but one thing was clear—Margaret Chase Smith was informed and articulate, and she was savvy about television. Four years later, when she again ran for reelection, Smith faced opponent Lucia Cormier in one of the first televised senatorial debates. By 1960, Margaret Chase Smith—unlike the two presidential candidates of that year—was already a veteran of TV debates.