The Great Debates Revisited at the Kansas City Public Library
Henry Fortunato | November 09, 2010
In retrospect, it was an audacious undertaking.
This year marked the fiftieth anniversary of a landmark moment in American political and cultural history. In 1960, presidential candidates John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon squared off in the first televised debates in our nation’s history. These Great Debates have achieved almost mythological status. When I realized earlier this year that their half-century mark was approaching, I thought it would be a valuable contribution to screen all four of these debates, especially since most people alive today are either too young to remember them (that would be me) or hadn’t even been born at all (most of my staff).
And so we at the Kansas City Public Library lined up a series of original multifaceted public events to take place in September and October. The Great Debates Revisited wasn’t merely a watch party, however.
The public screenings of the entirety of all four televised debates between the 1960 presidential candidates comprised the core of the series, which also included special book group discussion sessions and a film series focusing on cinematic depictions of both Kennedy and Nixon.
The Kansas City Public Library worked with the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library & Museum, JFK Library Foundation, and the Nixon Presidential Library & Museum to obtain the original kinescope footage of the debates as well as television commercials produced by both presidential campaigns. The Library also secured co-sponsorships from both the Harry S. Truman Library & Museum and the Truman Library Institute (both based in nearby Independence, Missouri) as well as promotional support from Kansas City Public Television.
The debate screenings were paired with expert commentary, beginning on September 27 with veteran reporter Sander Vanocur, who had represented NBC news and posed tough questions to each candidate during the first presidential debate broadcast from Chicago on September 26, 1960. Other speakers included James Roth, deputy director of the Kennedy Library (October 5); Timothy Naftali, director of the Nixon Library (October 12); and Rick Perlstein, historian and author of Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America (October 18).
In every instance, the debate footage was presented in its entirety. Audience members included a broad range of the community, from present-day high school students, to retirees who had cast their first vote fifty years before for either Kennedy or Nixon. Many attended at least three if not all four debate screenings, and at least one audience member managed to secure autographs from all four speakers on a library program guide. All screenings were conducted in the Truman Forum Auditorium, a 220-seat facility equipped with an 11-foot-by-17-foot projection screen and surround system that is housed within the Kansas City Public Library’s Plaza Branch, 4801 Main St.
The Library also coordinated three book discussion sessions focused on the classic Theodore H. White book The Making of the President 1960, and recruited former Kansas City mayors Kay Barnes and Dick Berkley to lead these sessions. More than thirty readers attended these sessions to share their thoughts with these retired public officials, who shared their own stories of political activities during the 1960 election.
An accompanying Presidential Perspectives film series included Frost/Nixon (2008), Thirteen Days (2000), PT 109 (1963), Nixon (1995), and The Fog of War (2003). All screenings took place at the Central Library (14 W. 10th St.) inside its Stanley H. Durwood Film Vault, a retro-styled movie theater built inside a former depository bank vault that was installed in the former First National Bank building during the 1920s. A total audience of 120 patrons attended one or more of these movie screenings.
The Great Debates Revisited was promoted by the library in several ways, including a twelve-page full color booklet outlining all activities, a webpage devoted to the series (including two blog postings), and a Facebook advertising campaign. The local news media responded to the series with a front-page article in The Kansas City Star and two radio interviews broadcast on Kansas City’s National Public Radio affiliate, one featuring Sander Vanocur and the other with Rick Perlstein.
Back in September, as we were getting closer to the actual screenings, I did begin to have some doubts about whether enough people would actually want to come out to the library four weeks in a row to view fifty-year-old hour-long black-and-white kinescopes of two guys debating forgotten Cold War issues like Quemoy and Matsu, and Fidel Castro’s Cuba.
But it turns out the words of Nixon and Kennedy still resonate, that their performances were worth watching, and in the process we all learned something about what’s happened to America in the last half-century. All in all, 1,055 people attended the program over a five-week timeframe, and this turned out to be one of the most rewarding series we’ve ever done.
Audacious, you bet. But it absolutely paid off.
Henry Fortunato is Director of Public Affairs for the Kansas City Public Library.