The two presidential debates between President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden, which occurred earlier this month, continued a long tradition in American politics that began 60 years ago, when Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy appeared in the first-ever televised debate in 1960. Fred Logevall, Professor of History at Harvard University and author of JFK: Coming of Age in the American Century, 1917-1956, joined Joe Mathieu on “Morning Edition” to break down how modern presidential debates compare to those of the past.

“I think both candidates, even in 1960, understood this could be something really big,” Logevall said. “Even then, they thought it could be a game-changer.” And they were. Approximately 75 million people tuned in to watch that first debate between Nixon and Kennedy. The narrative that emerged was that Kennedy won among viewers who watched on TV, while Nixon won among those who listened on the radio.

“On television, Kennedy’s youthfulness, this demeanor that he had on the set, the fact that he was crisp and clear in his responses, I think made a difference among voters,” Logevall said. “Many of whom didn’t know that much about him.”

Although President Trump declined to participate in the second presidential debate, which was set to be conducted virtually due to pandemic health and safety concerns, it wasn't the first time that candidates weren’t physically together for a debate. For their third debate, Nixon and Kennedy were separated by 3,000 miles: Nixon in California and Kennedy in New York.

“It’s kind of astonishing when you think back on it — it’s striking to me that the technology worked pretty well,” Logevell said about the distanced debates. “[Nixon] was apparently a little more comfortable when he wasn’t in the same room as [Kennedy].”

Given how the debates played out in 2020, rife with interruptions and personal attacks, many are asking: are they a disservice to voters? “I don’t think so,” Logevall said. “Having two candidates for the most important office in the land, having them go at each other, debating the issues, I think it’s something we’ve got to continue to do. I think it should stay the practice, imperfect as it sometimes is.”

Watch the historic 1960 presidential debate below: