During the intense fall U.S. presidential contest 56 years ago, Sen. John F. Kennedy and Vice President Richard M. Nixon made history by debating face-to-face on nationwide TV and also radio. The faceoff between the two presidential nominees, in September in a CBS studio in Chicago, redefined American politics in terms of how candidates compete, communicate with one another and the voters, and use technology.

The broadcast battle was the first of four debates, each notably in-depth by comparison with todays superficial soundbite statements. Each man had a relatively lengthy eight minute opening presentation, with follow-up rebuttal statements.

These path breaking battles drew a then unprecedented TV audience. Theodore H. White in The Making of the President 1960 reports the estimated audience for each debate was at least 65 million people, with an overall total greater than the 90 million who saw the 1959 World Series between the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Chicago White Sox.

The first debate was supposed to be about domestic policy, but Kennedy ignored that restriction. Time and again, he compared U.S. performance in economic growth, educational attainment, exploration of outer space and other fields to that of the Soviet Union.

None of the reporters present pointed out JFKs breach. Since President Franklin D. Roosevelts time, working reporters had moved toward the Democratic Party. Kennedy genuinely liked journalists, and he and his staff showed special skill in cultivating the press.

The Cold War was intense, and Kennedys emphasis on Soviet strength reflected opinion of the time. A quarter century later, Japan was supposed to be burying us economically. Today, many have assigned that role to China. Politicians reflect the public sentiments of their times, and times change.

When Kennedy began speaking from his chair, Nixon quietly pointed that out to moderator Howard K. Smith, who prompted Kennedy. Without missing a beat, JFK smoothly rose and walked to the podium.

John Kennedys ease contrasted with Richard Nixons tension, television highlighted this, and viewers overall felt Kennedy had the edge. By contrast, those who listened to the debates on radio generally thought Nixon had won.

By 1960, most American households had a TV. Those who listened to rather than watching the debates tended to be older, rural and more conservative, but that is not the entire explanation. Transcripts of the debates show Nixons comments to be more orderly, organized and specific.

Yet Kennedy enjoyed the political triumph. By 1960, a plurality of the electorate lived in the suburbs. Though each candidate paid tribute to the American farmer, the sharp historic division between rural and urban, and between labor and the wealthy, was fading as the middle classes expanded.

Kennedy presented a fresh, sophisticated image seemingly more in tune with these newly suburban Americans. Author Norman Mailer captured this in an impressionistic but insightful Esquire magazine article titled Superman Comes to the Supermarket.

In September 1960, many Americans still had only general impressions of JFK. Nixon constantly presented himself as more mature and experienced, at the right hand of President Dwight Eisenhower. Using TV, Kennedy sharply defined himself and equalized standing with Nixon. Debates among contenders as well as nominated candidates have now become a central feature of presidential politics.

Rich insights, for our time and any time, resonate from the epic interchange of two talented politicians. You should review the program, especially if you never have watched or listened to the contest, and evaluate 2016 contenders against this high standard.

Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College and author of After the Cold War. Contact acyr@carthage.edu.