What Might Have Been – The Proposed Kennedy-Goldwater Debates of 1964

As the first debate between Republican Donald J. Trump and Democrat Hillary Rodham Clinton looms on the horizon, journalists have begun harkening back to first presidential debate fifty-six years ago between then-candidates John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon.  

While those series of riveting encounters have inevitably served as a benchmark for presidential deliberation, the proposed series of POTUS debates that would have occurred in 1964 between President Kennedy and Arizona Senator Barry M. Goldwater have long preoccupied political historians over the years. Most Americans, however, are unaware of the startling facts that Barry Goldwater outlined in an astonishing series of interviews he gave after he retired from the United States Senate in 1987.

In the end, the groundbreaking debate format that Goldwater and Kennedy had discussed in the fall of 1963 could be called the great “what if” of modern political history. Senator Goldwater commented years later: “If Jack Kennedy hadn’t been assassinated, our debates the following year would have shaken up the way we select our presidents thereafter.”

I first became aware of the story twenty-eight years ago this month. In 1988, I was in the midst of working on a Master’s Degree at Harvard University. In the autumn of that presidential election year, I ended up taking a course at the Kennedy School of Government entitled, “Parties, Elections, and the Mass Media.” As the fall seminar progressed, Dr. Douglas Price asked us to come up with “provocative research” about past presidential elections that would form the basis of the grade of the course.

When I returned home to my apartment in West Newton that evening, I began channel-surfing and stopped when I observed that Robert MacNeil of PBS was conversing with Barry Goldwater. Despite my Democratic ties, I had long admired the Arizona senator’s honesty, sagacity, and candor.  

As I watched the program, I sat in disbelief as the 1964 Republican nominee told MacNeil: “Jack Kennedy and I had been friends for a long time. I actually had a few telephone conversations with him throughout the summer and early autumn of 1963. We eventually developed a debate format that would have completely altered how Americans choose their president. Unfortunately, the President died later on that fall. Afterward, his successor – Lyndon Johnson – wanted no part of it.”

As the program ended, I knew what my thesis topic would be.  

The following day, I ventured down to the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library in the Columbia Point section of Boston. I checked in the research section of the library for President Kennedy’s phone records covering the last six months of his life; I soon discovered that Goldwater and Kennedy had been in touch with each other a number of times in the fall of 1963. I then contacted former Senator Goldwater’s office in Arizona, hoping to speak to one of his senior aides.  His secretary informed me that the Senator would be glad to speak briefly with me  later that week. 

As I prepared for my telephone interview with Barry Goldwater, I discovered in researching the topic that JFK regularly contacted his former Senate colleagues for political and companionable reasons. A leader who was innately attracted to personal loyalty, inherent intelligence, and roguish charm; John Kennedy had long considered Barry Goldwater an unfailing friend. Despite their obvious differences in both philosophy and style. the two politicians shared a great love for their nation’s history and its democratic traditions. 

When the appointed time came for me to speak to Senator Goldwater, I was filled with apprehension. Goldwater’s uncommon grace immediately put me at ease. “Jack and I came to the Senate in 1952,” he commenced.  “We served on the Labor and Public Welfare Committee and became good friends. In the end, we were colleagues for eight years in the Senate before he became our president. I enjoyed President Kennedy’s humor, his intelligence, and his obvious love for our country.”

Senator Goldwater explained to me that “when it became clear that both of us would become the nominees of our respective parties in the fall of 1963, the two of us began informally discussing a proposed series of debates. We had the idea of traveling around the country with the idea of actively participating in some good old-fashioned debating.”

“What exactly do you mean, Senator?” I asked.

“Simple,” Goldwater replied.  “After discussing the debate question with the President throughout that autumn, we informally came to agree on a series of debates in the style of Lincoln and Douglas. He and I began to tentatively figure out our schedules for a series of ‘conversations.’ We’d even discussed flying together on Air Force One and appearing together in designated American cities for a few debates. The President and I didn’t want any moderators getting in our way. Why be interrupted by newsmen when we could formulate the questions ourselves? We wanted to concentrate on the problems facing the country – and both of us were confident enough in ourselves that we could do it for hours at a time. It certainly would have been real issues’ race as a result. You must remember, Jack and I had debated foreign and domestic policy for years in the Senate. For both of us, it would have been nothing new. More importantly, it would have been good for the country!”

As I pondered the ninety-second-time limit, sound-bite-style format enacted for all presidential debates from 1976 on, I comprehended why the Senator believed that the Kennedy-Goldwater debates would have changed the course of American politics. “A fascinating part of our proposal included the fact that there would have been no time restrictions,” Goldwater continued.  “We knew enough, as experienced politicians, when it was time to stop and move on to a new topic. The American people would have heard our philosophies without any filters. We would have our say and be done with it.”

Compared to modern presidential candidates, Goldwater and Kennedy were confident and savvy enough to discuss the issues without the use of cue cards, prepared notes, or spinmeisters. The legendary Arizona senator told me, “We had the idea that each debate might center around one major topic – foreign policy, let’s say. When the President was finished, I would respond.  We might each go on for several minutes. The debates might have lasted for hours without any moderator telling us to stop,” he quipped.

Goldwater continued, “I think that the American people would have been startled to see two men with very different views respectively go at each other in order to discuss the issues confronting the nation – without interruption or interference on the part of the media.”

The Arizona statesman concluded his interview by stating, “I also think that our citizens would have been surprised to see the amount of respect and friendship we had for one another despite our obvious differences.  We had just begun to earnestly discuss a detailed outline of the plan when President Kennedy was killed.”

“If he had lived,” Senator Goldwater remarked, “Jack would probably have beaten me by a good margin. I can say that now and even smile about it a bit. As I look back on it twenty-five years later, it was an enormous tragedy for our nation that the President did not fill out his term or serve the presidency for longer than he did.”

Fifty-two years later, one can only hypothesize that if the proposed Kennedy-Goldwater debates had taken place during the fall of 1964, such a radical format would have surely altered the course of presidential politics. By eliminating third-party interrogators, the candidates would have allowed the issues, not the format, to take control of the debates.

In addition, by centering on the problems of the 1960s, both nominees would have been forced to comment on the specifics of the issues, eliminating, for example, the significance of the sound bite. Of course, each candidate would never have spoken in twitter-fed half sentences. In contrast, their detailed prose form that would have undoubtedly detailed their different visions for the people of the United States and the world. Compared to Donald Trump’s neo-rap on issues, Barry Goldwater would have articulated his vision in long-form prose.

Also, by requiring the candidates to expound, for extended periods of time, on the crises confronting the United States and abroad, such a innovate debate format would have required astute, intelligent individuals speaking without pre-packaged, canned responses but as genuine experts on both foreign and domestic policy. By setting the precedence of running an issues-oriented campaign in 1964, it is almost impossible to speculate as to what influence this would have had on the present and disturbing reliance on negative campaign advertising.  

Finally, by centering more attention on the differences in philosophy and ideology between the two candidates in the debates, both major parties would have been compelled to produce decidedly concise and defined party platforms that would have been thoughtfully articulated and expanded upon by the nominees throughout the presidential campaign.

As seen through the lens of both history and perspective, it is logical that President John F. Kennedy and Senator Barry S. Goldwater would have set an astounding precedent for future candidates to observe. Consequently, the candidates chosen by the two major parties after 1964 might have been very different from the individuals who were ultimately nominated, including this year’s candidates.

Michelangelo once said, “The greater danger for most of us lies not in setting our aim too high and falling short, but in setting our aim too low, and achieving our mark.”

When I watch the first presidential debate later this month, it is especially regrettable for all of us that the luminosity of a Kennedy-Goldwater kind of debate will be largely absent.

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