By Eric Thurm
There were 20 Republican Primary Debates over the span of about 10 months, featuring 10 candidates and hundreds of questions. I watched every minute of all of them, because I am a masochist.
Those debates, which were immortalized in turns of phrase ranging from “surreal” to “a diabolic clown show,” became grandstands for enormous egos, bald-faced lies, and that nationally embarrassing two weeks when Herman Cain was the frontrunner for the office of President of the United States. It seemed like everyone who was still watching saw the debates as the new blood sport, a hybrid of politics and entertainment closer in spirit to The Hunger Games than the real world.
The media-industrial complex was caught up in overanalyzing the minutiae of the debates. Would soundbites like the $10,000 bet become serious campaign issues? (Hint: no.) Did Michele Bachmann effectively provoke Mitt Romney into finally losing his cool? (Hint: no.) Though some maintained that the debates were ultimately unimportant, most of us (myself included) were caught up in the spectacle, scouring each answer for its effects on primaries months away to which no one was paying attention. When Mitt Romney inevitably reemerged as the nominee, we woke from our collective haze and asked what everyone asks after a gross 20-night stand through the pounding national hangover: “How the hell did we get here?”
That’s the question I’d like to start to explore in this space. Presidential debates are full of contradictions—they are, at least in theory, supposed to be the epitome of civic education and the democratic process. Sometimes they even succeed. They’re also fascinating displays of the biggest personalities America has to offer, cynical plays for cash, votes, and infamy, and illustrations of the enormous role image plays in our politics. I hope all of you who were suckered into reading by promises of 9-9-9 jokes continue to join me in examining the history of this political ritual. Please help me out by filling in any of the inevitable gaps in research, memory, or analysis—these are some big topics. With that out of the way, let’s talk about the first-ever televised presidential debates, starting with what might be the single most important debate in history.
On September 27, 1960, the day after the first-ever televised presidential debate between Democratic nominee Senator John F. Kennedy and sitting Vice President Richard M. Nixon, seen by upwards of 70 million people, the New York Times reported that, “For the most part, the exchanges were distinguished by a suavity, earnestness and courtesy that suggested that the two men were more concerned about ‘image projection’ to their huge television audience than about scoring debating points.” The equal application of this description to both candidates should be amusing to anyone familiar with the dominant historical narrative about the debate. After all, everyone knows that Kennedy won because he was good-looking and photogenic, and Nixon looked grumpy and sweaty, right?
Not quite. The Times separately reported that “Most of the audience apparently made one of two basic decisions: their vote preferences remained unchanged, or they were still very much undecided.” In addition to the Times’ ambiguous coverage, Variety reported in its headline, “1st ‘Great Debate’ Historic Dud as Nixon & Kennedy ‘Play It Safe.’” Not exactly the story of the magnificent victory that handed Kennedy the election. Senator Kennedy got some favorable coverage, though. On September 28, the Times reported “Kennedy on First by a Fielder’s Choice” (for historical TV criticism enthusiasts who don’t know baseball, fielder’s choice means shrugging your shoulders—it could have gone either way). Some knockout. The tepid immediate response was especially bad for Kennedy, who had himself originally proposed the debates in a bid to gain traction in the race against the much better known and heavily favored Nixon.
Eventually, Kennedy’s gamble seemed to have paid off. He was a relative political unknown at the beginning of the election cycle (since no one really paid attention to the primaries at this point in history), and the Eisenhower administration had, for the most part, been good to Americans. But as the election approached, studies suggested that Kennedy was more and more widely perceived to have won in the debates. It’s not quite fair, then, to characterize our historical understanding of the debates as a fabrication. After all, the media doesn’t always (or even consistently) capture the ways in which real voters will react to certain events during election season, especially the day after ($10,000 bet, anyone?). But the factors that did, in a real way, influence Kennedy’s victory covered all aspects of what it means to be part of a televised debate. They simply seem to have been magnified and compressed over time into the effectively debunked myth that Kennedy being good-looking won him the election.
That’s all consistent with the medium of television, of course. We can go back and watch the debate and remark at how together Kennedy looked and assume that’s all there was, but we don’t get to be in 1960 and consider what it was like to see the candidates for president go head to head for the first time, especially as a prospective voter concerned with the Soviet Union rather than Obamacare. But we also have the benefit of hindsight, which we all know etc. The magnified elements of the way the debates are conducted today shed some light on what the media of 1960 might have missed.
Let’s start with the obvious: the Richard Nixon of 1960 would never be elected if he were running for president today. That’s not because of his propensities for paranoia, brutal political tactics, and wiretapping—those are all par for the course in our current political climate (ba-zing!). Candidate Nixon from 1960 would simply be unequipped for the media campaign that constitutes much of presidential races. To understand why, though (as well as to understand why Kennedy’s victory wasn’t immediately apparent), it’s worth noting the ways in which Nixon vs. Kennedy was a unique election in the evolution of the modern media gauntlet.
The 1960 election was the first to see an inundation of televised advertising at a level even vaguely reminiscent of current levels: Broadcasting predicted it would account for 20-25% of non-network TV business that year. The medium changes both the campaign message and strategic incentives in their use—campaign ads on TV are a totally different game from radio, print, and especially straight-up traditional retail politics. Two examples: TV-centric media campaigns make negative campaigning much more attractive and dramatically increase the importance of fundraising, which goes to pay for expensive airtime. Both intensive negative campaigning and massive, insane fundraising are now two of the cornerstones of modern campaigning (as anyone subscribed to a campaign email list will tell you).
More importantly, Congressional action here was necessary to make the debates possible in the first place. Alterations to the Equal Time Provision allowed networks to promise fair coverage without incurring the wrath of minor parties seeking the same amount of press as the major parties. Those changes to the law had some provisions that might seem antiquated at this point—for example, there was to be no corporate sponsorship for any program a candidate appeared on. Though there was a “watchdog” committee set to monitor the networks for unfairness or partisanship in their reporting, some members of Congress were skeptical of the increased authority it gave the networks. Their worry doesn’t seem to have been without merit—it isn’t hard to see a throughway to the current state of much of the media. The benefits of the relative freedoms of the press in 2012 are certainly debatable, but it’s undeniable that 1960 was an important year in that deregulatory process.
The campaigns were also adamantly opposed to the sponsorship question, not wanting to appear paid for by corporations. Times change, huh? As the candidates geared up for the debates, though, much of the preparatory work went into making them appear to be a worthy enterprise, selecting a panel of journalists to ask the questions and hedging against the possibility that the debates would devolve into a sideshow. In some rather cruel foreshadowing, the Times reported that Nixon accepted Kennedy’s challenge on the condition that the debates not be a “show” of personalities, to which several decades of history replied in its own debate gaffe, “Oops.”
That built up conventional wisdom sidesteps the importance of television by focusing solely on appearance. Kennedy was photogenic, Nixon was sweaty and uncomfortable, and that led voters to reject Nixon en masse, handing Kennedy an election he would have otherwise lost. That’s partially true, but there is a lot more to dissect in the debates, all of which comes down to the power of television, and specifically what it means to be a political candidate on television. This was relatively uncharted territory, and going into the debate itself we’ll see the various ways that Kennedy, purposefully and accidentally, took advantage of the medium.
It’s true that Nixon was caught unaware by the visual realities of the medium, though he’d had a reputation as a very TV-savvy politician. The very first shot of the debate, in which moderator Jack Smith began introducing the candidates and explaining the format, displayed most of the problems with the Nixon camp’s lack of a debate strategy—he sat with his legs open, looked at Smith instead of the cameras, fidgeted, didn’t wear makeup but did rock a gray suit that didn’t stand out in black and white television, and sweated through much of the debate. That may not be the image any candidate wants to project, but it also isn’t even close to the whole story.
Crucially, Nixon’s broad strategy and attitude toward the debate were also flat and deeply problematic. He remained aloof and arrogant, agreeing with the broad patriotic substance of most of Kennedy’s answers, refusing to go on the offensive, and suggesting that the American people would simply make the right decision without giving them serious reasons to choose him. Nixon’s demeanor can perhaps best be described as genteel in a way that was well suited to the political system of the past, defined as it was by backroom dealing and power concentrated in far fewer patrician individuals. After all, you would never deem to stoop to that sort of insult in front of the entire nation when you, as the vice president, felt entitled to the presidency. His tone of voice, something that would be important even on the radio, remains consistent without adding additional force to the most important statements. He even reportedly declined to practice beforehand, thinking he would wipe the floor with Kennedy.
In fact, Nixon only had two serious points of contrast with Kennedy throughout the debate. The first, and by far the one Nixon spent the most time on, was the argument that Kennedy was too inexperienced, which Kennedy had clearly prepared for and answered with enough rhetorical force to effectively neutralize. Kennedy’s answers focused on the time he had spent in Congress as sufficient to understand the law and governing, and posited that Nixon’s experience wouldn’t be useful going forward into a new era—sound like an argument any senators running for president have made successfully in the last few years? Nixon barely referenced specifics of his own experience, suggesting that his advice had been taken on some occasions and ignored on others during his tenure as vice president in what might be the most modest statement a candidate for public office has ever made on-air. When asked a direct question about what proposals he had made, he briefly mentioned his experience in foreign affairs. Watching the debate you would have no reason to suspect that this was the man who would go on to have a freaking opera written about his experiences in China. To some extent, Nixon’s statements on this question were just regurgitations of his campaign advertisements, which relied on the generic endorsement of President Eisenhower.
The second major area of debate was on rather familiar questions of federal spending and budgeting. Nixon argued that Kennedy would break the budget by lavishing money on aid programs, Social Security, and education. Kennedy, well, argued otherwise. In these exchanges (which focused on policies affecting demographics like the elderly and urban poor), Kennedy was also the only participant in the debate who actually seemed to be making a play for specific voters. It should seem like a given that the best president for, say, a low-income black family will not be the best president for wealthy white dudes. Throughout the debate, Kennedy makes not-so-subtle plays for the votes of the elderly (by playing up his support for social security) and the poor (minimum wage), and direct appeals to black voters. All of these seem more likely to resonate with an individual voter than Nixon’s approach, which was based on saying why he would be a better president in the most generic way imaginable. In fact, Nixon’s answers on these questions, with zingers like, “We both want to help the old people,” were especially awkward.
Nixon’s approach to the debate with regard to both the question of experience and appeals to voter demographics suggests a fundamentally different understanding of the office. In Nixon’s world, the presidency was an office that required the constant exercise of what you might call the faculty of governing—making decisions, listening to counsel, etc. All of that is part of the job, but it largely ignores respective party platforms—certain policy decisions were in play in the election, and Kennedy was able to point out which would be beneficial to key voter blocs. Some of this is certainly due to the candidates’ respective recent backgrounds—Nixon as vice president in the executive branch and Kennedy as a legislator in the Senate—but it’s also indicative of an attitude toward campaigning that presaged the hyperfocused election we find ourselves in now, with separate campaigns run for young people, Hispanic people, women, and any other demographic group that can be targeted.
The visual power of television is important, of course (or you’re at the wrong site), but the biggest miscalculation the Nixon campaign made might have been underestimating the democratizing power of the medium and the ways it would force them into different and new political strategies. The “whims of the people” are often derided in such contexts, but it’s undeniable that political strategy changed immensely when they were given such intimate access to the candidates in their own homes. Nixon’s attitude toward the people comes across as condescending. In his answer to a question on presidential vetoes, Nixon claimed that a veto had to be representative of the “will of the people,” a statement that makes no sense. Obviously the President can veto popular legislation as Congress can pass unpopular legislation, and even in a theoretically perfect world Congress would pass legislation that was an extension of the will of the people, making vetoes unnecessary. I’d bet comments like that (ones that today might unfairly be called professorial instead of just douchey) were even more damaging than the entire contents of Nixon’s sweaty kerchief.
Those questions of political strategy are magnified on television. If you advocate a policy for a group of voters, any individual sees the candidate telling them why they should give the candidate their vote. Nixon never makes the type of personal appeal Kennedy did, referring to the American people as if they weren’t all glued to their televisions. If you don’t look at your opponent and appear to be ignoring his answers, you’ll look like a know-it-all. If you repeat the same lines over and over, the strength of those lines comes into question since they’re either groaners or applause lines. Here, Nixon’s broad agreement with Kennedy and continued invocation of the Eisenhower administration did him no favors, blunting his personal charisma and force as a potential president.
That charisma and personal force are part of “image,” the dreaded scourge of politics that reduces everything to superficial elements like suits and sweating. It’s true that sometimes candidates can run on a face and vague platitudes, counting on being the guy you want to have a beer with. But it’s equally true that we don’t know what candidates will do in every situation—to some extent, elections are referenda on people, who will have to exercise their judgment in various contexts outside whatever is discussed in the debates. The president doesn’t even have the power to make the law whatever he wants it to be (something lots of smart people still don’t seem to understand to this day). Kennedy’s biggest victory was taking advantage of that extra quality that makes someone a good president and using the immediacy of television to argue that he was the best man for the job, rather than the representative of a party or product of so many years of experience. Sometimes candidates without an extensive resume can argue that they have that capacity for judgment, but television is crucial to actually reaching people with that argument in a way only personally meeting the candidate could achieve before.
Other aspects of face to face meetings seeped into the debate landscape—there were actually four Nixon/Kennedy debates, the last three of which were widely perceived as much closer than the first. But that first impression is the only one anyone remembers. The diminishing returns of exposure to the same candidates over and over will be familiar to anyone who watched even two of the debates in the 2012 primary season, when almost everything important had been exhausted after the first few debates, leaving us to hour after hour of the same talking points repeated ad nauseum. Broadening access to candidates, and the changing incentives that come with it, is likely the single biggest result of the introduction of televised debates to presidential elections. Those incentives have shifted to meet different needs over the last half century, from Kennedy’s triumph of appearance to an ever-increasing hunger for manufactured controversy in the gaffe machine today’s primary debates.
To circle back to the recent Republican debates (which we’ll get to, I promise), Kennedy’s performance is a master class in how struggling politicians can use debates to their own advantage to prove that they are qualified, effective candidates. By the time we get to 2012, we’ll see in grave detail how debates can show a candidate as everything from weak-willed to out of touch to (yes) attention-seeking narcissists. That exposure has consequences; when we come back, we’ll have to jump ahead to 1976, because no candidate in the intervening 16 years wanted to participate in any televised debates for fear of enduring the same fate as Tricky Dick.