Television had been lingering around the political scene for a few years before the first televised presidential candidate debate, on September 26, 1960, between Vice President Richard Nixon and the relatively unknown Irish-American senator John F. Kennedy. But it wasn’t until that night that the tube, millions of them, burned a mark on the face of American politics.
Those who listened to the debate on the radio labeled Nixon the winner. But those who watched on TV saw Kennedy as the victor. Next to Nixon, who appeared sweaty, pale, and underweight from a recent hospitalization, Kennedy was a handsome portrait of calm and confidence. Nixon improved for subsequent debates but the damage had already been done. (See video here.)
On November 12, four days after winning the presidency by a narrow margin, Kennedy acknowledged the role the tube had played: “It was the TV more than anything else that turned the tide,” he said. A 1979 report on presidential debates noted that the Nixon-Kennedy debates “made televised encounters between candidates the hottest thing in electioneering since the campaign button.” The television was so intimidating to future candidates that they generally avoided them: the next televised presidential debate wouldn’t take place for another 16 years. They’ve been with us ever since.
But Kennedy was thinking hard about the power of television well before that night. An essay he wrote a year earlier, for TV Guide’s November 14, 1959 issue, took on the question of what kind of impact mass media held over politics, and vice versa. Whereas President Wilson, presenting the League of Nations to America during a three week tour, earned himself a stroke after the grueling trip, Kennedy notes that “President Dwight Eisenhower, taking his case to the people on the labor situation, is able to reach several million in one 15-minute period without ever leaving his office.”
The effect was to tie to politicians a new identity: “the image.” While “they may in fact be based only on a candidate’s TV impression, ignoring his record, views and other appearances,” he wrote, “my own conviction is that these images or impressions are likely to be uncannily correct.”
The serious fallacies of that view aside (see the work of historians like Walter Lippmann and Daniel Boorstin), Kennedy was onto something. As he writes, referring to the Gore report, the Republican National Committee spent over $3,000,000 for television and the Democratic National Committee just under $2,800,000 on television broadcasting in 1956. In the 2010 midterm elections, campaign receipts totaled something closer to $4 billion.
But the power of the boob tube to bring that image to the people didn’t mean intimacy and honesty, Kennedy acknowledged. Political campaigns, he warned, “could be taken over by public relations experts, who tell the candidate not only how to use TV but what to say, what to stand for and what kind of person to be.” The best defense against televised lies, he says, somewhat simplistically in retrospect, are the growing masses of TV viewers themselves. Like game shows, he wrote, political campaigns “can be fixed…It is in your power to perceive deception, to shut off gimmickry, to reward honesty, to demand legislation where needed.”
Fifty-one years after it was first published, in the midst of our mad, viral, tea-partying, Facebook-lined, 30-second-spotted, billion-dollar campaign era, the essay wears its age like a grey 60s suit: it’s classy, it still works, but it feels tepid next to the shiny outfits of figures like Glen Beck or outlets like Youtube. It’s not hard to imagine those innovations would have had Kennedy sweating like Nixon.
Here’s the essay in full:
A Force That Has Changed The Political Scene
By Sen. John F. Kennedy
The wonders of science and technology have revolutionized the modern American political campaign. Giant electronic brains project results on the basis of carefully conducted polls. Automatic typewriters prepare thousands of personally addressed letters, individually signed by automatic pens. Jet planes make possible a coast-to-coast speaking schedule no observation-car back platform could ever meet.
Even wash-and-wear fabrics permit the wilted nonstop candidate to travel lighter, farther and faster.
But nothing compares with the revolutionary impact of television. TV has altered drastically the nature of our political campaigns, conventions, constituents, candidates and costs. Some politicians regard it with suspicion, others with pleasure. Some candidates have benefited by using it – others have been advised to avoid it. To the voter and vote-getter alike, TV offers new opportunities, new challenges and new problems.
But for better or worse-and I side with those who feel its net effect can definitely be for the better – the impact of TV on politics is tremendous. Just 40 years ago Woodrow Wilson exhausted his body and mind in an intensive cross-country tour to plead the cause of the League of Nations. Three weeks of hard travel and 40 speeches brought on a stroke before had finished “taking his case to the people” in the only way then available. Today, President Dwight Eisenhower, taking his case to the people on the labor situation, is able to reach several million in one 15-minute period without ever leaving his office.
To cite another example: The most dramatic political trial in our history was the Impeachment trial of President Andrew Johnson in 1868, avidly followed by all the Nation. Newspaper accounts were decidedly partisan – those who wished to see and judge for themselves flocked to Washington by carriage and train. But even if every seat in the Senate galleries had been occupied by a different person every day for the two months of trial, no more than 3000 people could have witnessed that historic event. But In the month of May 1954, an estimated 70 million TV viewers watched part or all of the Army-McCarthy hearings.
These hearings, the Kefauver crime hearings, the McClellan rackets hearings, the conventions of 1952 and 1956-these and other “political TV spectaculars” have given the American public new ideas, new attitudes, new heroes and new villains. Less dramatic but also important have been the televised panel press conferences, the debates, interviews, campaign speeches and even the political commercials. Many new political reputations have been made on TV-and many old ones have been broken.
The searching eye of the television camera scrutinizes the candidates-and the way they are picked. Party leaders are less willing to run roughshod over the voters’ wishes and hand-pick an unknown, unappealing or unpopular in the traditional “smoke-filled room” when millions of voters are watching, comparing and remembering.
The slick or bombastic orator, pounding the table and ringing the rafters, is not as welcome in the family living room as he was in the town square or party hail. In the old days, many a seasoned politician counted among his most highly developed and useful talents his ability to dodge a reporter’s question, evade a “hot” Issue and avoid a definite stand. But today a vast viewing public is able to detect such deception and, in my opinion, willing to respect political honesty.
Honesty, vigor, compassion, intelligence – the presence or lack of these and other qualities make up what is called the candidate’s “image.” While some intellectuals and politicians may scoff at these “images” – and while they may in fact be based only on a candidate’s TV impression, ignoring his record, views and other appearances – my own conviction is that these images or impressions are likely to be uncannily correct. I think, no matter what their defenders or detractors may say, that the television public has a fairly good idea of what Dwight D. Eisenhower is really like – or Jimmy Hoffa – or John McClellan – or Vice President Nixon -or countless others.
This is why a new breed of candidates has sprung up on both the state and national levels. Republican Governors Rockefeller (New York) and Hatfield (Oregon) successfully countered the Democratic trend in 1958 with particular reliance on TV appeal. The list of fresh Democratic faces who understood – and scored on – this medium in 1958 is almost endless: including new governors such as Edmondson of Oklahoma and Patterson of Alabama, new senators such as McGee of Wyoming and Hart of Michigan, new mayors such as Gracy of Baltimore (1959)-as well as a host of others, elected or reelected in 1958 or earlier.
Most of these men are comparatively young. Their youth may still be a handicap in the eyes of the older politicians – but it is definitely an asset in creating a television image people like and (most difficult of all) remember.
This is not to say that all the politicians of yesteryear would nave been failures in the Age of Television. The rugged vigor of Teddy Roosevelt, the determined sincerity of Woodrow Wilson, the quiet dignity of Lincoln and the confidence-inspiring calm of FDR-all would have been tremendously effective on TV.
Can you imagine the effect of televising FDR’s “Fireside Chats”? How different history might have been had a nationwide TV network carried Bryan’s Cross of Gold speech – or the Teapot Dome investigation – or Lincoln’s First Inaugural Address.
But political success on television is not, unfortunately, limited only to those who deserve it. It is a medium which lends itself to manipulation, exploitation and gimmicks. It can be abused by demagogs, by appeals to emotion and prejudice and ignorance.
Political campaigns can be actually taken over by the “public relations” experts, who tell the candidate not only how to use TV but what to say, what to stand for and what “kind of person” to be. Political shows, like quiz shows, can be fixed-and sometimes are.
The other great problem TV presents for politics is the item of financial cost. It is no small item. In the 1956 campaign, the Republican National Committee, according to the Gore report, spent over $3,000,000 for television-and the Democratic National Committee, just under $2,800,000 on television broadcasting.
If all candidates and parties are to have equal access to this essential and decisive campaign medium, without becoming deeply obligated to the big financial contributors from the worlds of business, labor or other major lobbies, then the time has come when a solution must be found to this problem of TV costs.
This is not the place to discuss alternative remedies. But the basic point is this: Whether TV improves or worsens our political system, whether it serves the purpose of political education or deception, whether it gives us better or poorer candidates, more intelligent or more prejudiced campaigns – the answers to all this are up to you, the viewing public.
It is in your power to perceive deception, to shut off gimmickry, to reward honesty, to demand legislation where needed. Without your approval, no TV show is worthwhile and no politician can exist.
That is the way it always has been and will continue to be – and that is the way it should be.
Television wasn’t Kennedy’s only gadget; he was also known to occasionally rock the vocoder.