On Sept 26th, 1960, John F Kennedy and Richard participated in the first ever televised presidential debate.
Before the debate, JFK was a senator from Massachusetts without much national recognition, and Nixon was incumbent two-term vice president under Dwight Eisenhower.
Before the debate, JFK was young, unknown, and catholic, all of which arguably counted against him. As far as loony conspiracy theories go, some predicted that he would build an underground tunnel directly to the Vatican and would bow to the pope’s tuition.
After the debate, JFK was the future president.
It’s commonly accepted that television made JFK a star and guaranteed his white house win. He was confident and articulate and Nixon was nervous. He was charming and well-rested (he had just taken a nap) and Nixon was pale and sweaty (he had recently been hospitalized for an infection from a knee injury). Presidential historian Robert Gilbert said Kennedy “looked to be radiating health,” with a wide smile and vivid tan.
About 67 million people, more than 60% of adults, watched the debates on television.
It’s still debated today whether or not these televised debates actually did change history, but Kennedy himself said it was “TV more than anything else that turned the tide,” according to Time magazine. Meanwhile, Nixon refused to take part in any televised debates after the debates with Kennedy.
It would 16 years before there were any more televised presidential debates. Gerald Ford debated Jimmy Carter in 1976. Since then, televised debates have been a mainstay, and television has influenced politics in more ways than we’d probably feel comfortable with if we considered the grand scale.
Consider this, the Cuban Missile crisis, 1962; Kennedy refused to take the advice of his Join Chiefs of Staff and “respond militarily to the Soviet Union’s placing of nuclear missiles in Cuba,” according to Ted Sorensen, Kennedy’s speechwriter and advisor. Sorensen said he is sure Nixon would have taken the Joint Chiefs advice. “He was more hawkish on military matters. Had [Nixon] done as the Joint Chiefs urged it would have started a nuclear war from which nobody would have survived. I think we should certainly be grateful that John F. Kennedy won that debate.”
Maybe television gave us Kennedy and saved us from nuclear war, but television also gave us a political climate where “how you presented yourself, what you looked like, how you sounded and whether you connected directly with audiences mattered,” said Larry Sabato, political analyst at the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.
“Before the television debates most Americans didn’t even see the candidates — they read about them, they saw photos of them,” Sabato said. “This allowed the public to judge candidates on a completely different basis.” It’s a reality that continues to influence campaigns today. “When parties are considering their candidates they ask: Who would look better on TV? Who comes across better? Who can debate better?” Sabato says. “This has been taken into the calculus” (Time).
Consider the election of Donald Trump, a man whose entire identity was forged on television, a man who for years opportunistically curried televised favor by popularizing conspiracy theories and airing his feuds with other celebrities. Consider how frequently pundits compare Trump to Nixon thanks to a string of progressively more plausible accusations of election tampering and Russian collusion and louder and louder calls for impeachment.
Nixon had Vietnam, Trump wants Korea. Nixon may have brought us into nuclear war with Russia. Trump both suggests that all nations should have nuclear weapons and threatens to “destroy” North Korea if they keep improving theirs.
Did television give us John F Kennedy? Did he avert nuclear annihilation in a situation where Nixon would have destroyed us? If so, the thanks we owe television is indirect and incidental at best. It gives us nothing but appearances. It has turned debate into a professional wrestling match.
Television has devolved. Television has caused politics to devolve. And television has caused the voter and consumer to devolve with it.
Whatever happens next, we deserve our fate.