We interrupt our 24/7 news cycle to bring you this important historical milestone:
Last night marked the 50th anniversary of the first televised presidential debate, the maiden bout between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon, an event that was viewed by 70 million first-generation couch potatoes.
In the words of journalist-historian David Halberstam, the first Kennedy-Nixon debate, broadcast from Chicago on Sept. 26, 1960, “changed politics. Before it, politicians had looked like politicians and (backroom) bosses were still bosses; after it, nothing was the same…Even the smells were different, the old smell of cigars replaced by the smell of cosmetics.”
Most importantly, Halberstam decreed that, in the wake of this milestone debate, “Television shifted the entire balance and nature of political exposure…Television was legitimized as the main instrument of political discourse.”
Metaphorically speaking, the cosmetics have been with us ever since.
It’s way too glib to suggest that JFK won the ’60 election squeaker simply because he looked better than Vice President Nixon on the tube that fateful night. But it’s virtually inarguable, as Halberstam pointed out, that this TV event did mark a sea change in the “nature of political exposure,” simply by leveling the playing field, by allowing Kennedy to command the optics. He began the night as an upstart underdog who was widely thought to be too young and inexperienced; he ended the night as Nixon’s widely perceived equal, as the first celebrity-politician of the TV era, and he nudged ahead in the polls.
It certainly wasn’t the content of the debate that turned the tide. Howard K. Smith, the CBS newsman who served as moderator, later wrote in his memoirs that “it was not much of a debate. Because the reporters on the panel were not allowed to ask follow-up questions, both candidates shamelessly slid by questions rather than answering them.”
Indeed, nobody today actually remembers anything that the candidates said, and for good reason. Our 1960 forebears were presumably benumbed by the content, and perhaps pining for the lost option of watching Bonanza.
Here was Kennedy: “I therefore suggest that in those basic commodities which are supported, that the federal government, after endorsement by the farmers in that commodity, attempt to bring supply and demand into balance – attempt effective production controls – so that we won’t have that five or six per cent surplus which breaks the price fifteen or twenty per cent.”
Here was Nixon: “(Kennedy) would make pay-as-you-go be the basis for our natural resources development. Where our natural resources development – which I also support, incidentally, however – whenever you uh – uh – in – in – uh – appropriates money for one of these projects, you have to pay now and appropriate the money and the eh- while they eventually do pay out, it doesn’t mean that you – the government doesn’t have to put out the money this year.”
(It’s also amusing to discover how little has changed in the basic Democratic-Republican divide. Nixon said repeatedly that small government is better, while Kennedy insisted that he wants “effective government,” as opposed to big government. Still, both these candidates ran broadly centrist campaigns, and that’s one reason why the visual imagery became so important.)
The words really didn’t matter. The pictures ruled. Kennedy was visibly relaxed, the benefits of 24 hours rest at a hotel just blocks from the studio, and his tan complexion showed up well in black and white, especially with the help of a cosmetic called Max Factor Creme Puff. (Some say that JFK was tan because he had been campaigning in California; others, because he had sunned himself on the hotel roof; Howard K. Smith said he was “bronzed” because of his Addison’s disease.) And his dispassionate cool translated well on the tube.
By contrast, Nixon had lost a lot of weight from illness, his suit jacket seemed several sizes too big, he had just re-injured a knee in a car door accident, and he was sweating heavily; a powder called Shavestick did little to help, and it certainly couldn’t cure his often-visible anxiety. The bottom line – again, a cosmetic judgment – was that Kennedy, heretofore dismissed even by many Democrats as callow, came off as qualified to share the same stage as the sitting vice president.
In recent years, a counter-narrative about the first ’60 debate has surfaced; some historians and commentators have suggested that its impact on the ’60 race has been somewhat overplayed. After all, Kennedy might’ve lost the election anyway had he failed to carry Texas (where his veep choice, Lyndon Johnson, helped immeasurably) and failed to carry Illinois (where Mayor Richard Daley may have helped in any number of shady ways).
But what matters most is what the press and the political players perceived to have happened. Again, Howard K. Smith: “I, sitting modestly and as inconspicuously as possible between them, thought Nixon was marginally better. But when I saw a replay later, it was clear that the handsome, confident Kennedy was victor. He later told me he won the election that night.”
And if the Kennedys felt that way, what subsequent politician would risk ignoring the power of television? It has ruled us ever since, for better or worse (sometimes way worse, with politicians fussing over cosmetics like this), and even in our current autumn campaign season, despite the vaunted ubiquity of the Internet, hundreds of TV ads will go for the gut in 30-second bursts. So happy 50th anniversary to us. Although I use the word happy advisedly.
But back to the here and now. In print yesterday, I columnized at length about the uneasy future relationship between the Tea Party and the Republican party.