Why were the Kennedy-Nixon debates in 1960 so important for the political influence of American television?
The debates between John Kennedy and Richard Nixon in the last days of the 1960 presidential campaign have become both famous (in the American public’s imagination) and influential (in determining the nature of subsequent political campaigns, not only in America but in other western democracies as well). These debates were watched by more than 70 million viewers in America (and millions more listened on the radio). However, before the start of the campaign, it was by no means clear that Kennedy would win. At the beginning of 1960, President Eisenhower was still a popular candidate, and would have won had he been allowed by the constitution to stand for a third term. Lyndon Johnson had a regionalised support based in the South, Kennedy seemed far too young and inexperienced, and Vice-President Nixon did not have the confidence of the electorate. These television debates (the first time that a presidential debate had been televised) were therefore crucial in winning the election for John Kennedy, and for securing the defeat of Nixon, though the television (and the image created from being on television) had never before played such a pivotal role in an election campaign. How did this come about?
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Television as crucial to Kennedy’s campaign
Kennedy formalised his declaration for the presidency on 2nd January 1960, which some professional politicians felt was too early to begin a presidential campaign. Kennedy realised that he had a problem, but he was forced both by his own inexperience (he needed more time to prove himself) and by the hostility he faced from senior members of the Democrat party. In order to stand any change of being nominated, Kennedy needed to make his campaign open and public, and importantly, to use television to create a good public image, to attract the public, and to excite the voters by presenting himself as the candidate best qualified to take America forward into this promising new era, embodied by hope and optimism. Kennedy also had to overcome several problems that would have had a hugely negative impact on his public image: he suffered from chronic poor health and he was promiscuous, despite his prominent and public marriage to Jacqueline Bouvier in 1953 at a society wedding in Newport, Rhode Island, in front of a crowd of 3,000. It is notable that Kennedy managed to keep this aspect of his personal life quiet only because the media paid no attention the private lives of those in office, but this was in 1960, and before Kennedy was about to remake politicians as television celebrities. Kennedy managed both to overcome these detractors to his image, and to create a positive image despite others’ criticisms of his ability to hold office, by appealing straight to voters, via the new mass media technology of television and television marketing; this was a remaking of American politics.
The medium is the message
It is the nature of the medium of television, with its combination of visual and audio clues, and its instant, mass communication, that a great many people can come to an instant judgement of a candidate based not only on what he says, but also on how he says it. The first presidential debate was key; all three subsequent debates were based upon the Kennedy’s initial television success. It is interesting to compare the television with the radio debate for an example of how influential the television debate was, and for how it would secure the primacy of the medium of television over radio, something which has not yet been changed in the modern age of political electioneering. Radio listeners rated Nixon the victor in these debates, while television viewers believed that Kennedy had won. If there was such a clear difference between views on different media, then it must be the case that the nature of the media is the explanation. On television, viewers could see a Kennedy who was well-dressed, handsome and articulate (in other words, a political celebrity) against a poorly presented and badly dressed Nixon. Neither candidate had in actual fact any great difference between them in terms of their political policies; Kennedy was just incredibly successful at emphasising his dynamism, youth, vigour and optimism, in other words, a triumph of style over political substance. The voter turn-out of the election shows just how good Kennedy was at stimulation the interest of the electorate via his good image-presentation. The turn-out (in terms of percentage of adults of voting age casting votes) was the highest it had ever been in the history of American politics, especially among African American voters, whose vote Kennedy had managed to secure by his high-profile association with the civil rights movement.
President as celebrity: the focus on image
The television debates greatly advanced the popular image of Kennedy. For example, many people had thought that Kennedy was too young (he was the first American president to take office born in the 20th century, at age 43) and too inexperienced to take office. This would have been a serious criticism of the would-be president, and in fact, this was only dispelled by his appearance on television, something that Kennedy himself later admitted: “We wouldn’t have had a prayer without that gadget”. He came across as cool, calm and collected, with poise and knowledge enough to endure the responsibility of holding presidential office. It was these presidential debates in 1960 that really propelled Kennedy to power, on the back of the positive public image he had generated. In fact, so successful was the careful management of presidential appearance on television, that the image of Kennedy as youthful, dynamic, optimistic and able to ‘seize the moment’ was never lost after his election to office. Instead, Kennedy went on to embody the nascent optimism and expectancy of early 1960s America (and the image of Kennedy as glorious and heroic was established all the more firmly by his assassination on 22nd November, 1963). This was a time when great social plans and movements could be won (the civil rights movement), a time when new frontiers were being expanded and explored (the space race) and a time when many dreamt of increased affluence and economic prosperity.
The lesson learnt
No one more than failed presidential candidate Nixon was aware of how important creating a positive image on television (and radio) was: “Looking back on all four of them, [television debates] there can be no question but that Kennedy had gained more from the debates than I.” It is clear that these television debates were crucial for securing electoral success; Nixon failed to win the presidential campaign in 1960, and he attributed this directly to the way his image was managed (especially on television): “I recognized the basic mistakes I had made. I had concentrated too much on substance and not enough on appearance.” Nixon never made that mistake again. In 1968, when he again ran for president, he made sure that his appearances on television were closely controlled and timed, in order to appear cool, calm, and collected; in other words, just as Kennedy had so successfully appeared in 1960. It worked. Nixon became president in 1968, though he often tried to deny that he was one of the first presidents to realise that image (most easily communicated via the mass media of TV) was crucial to electoral and thence political success: “I don’t worry about polls. I don’t worry about images…I never have.” This, of course, was not true. Nixon expended a great deal of energy into maintaining a good public image, something which no president had done to quite the extent before, and something which has also set a precedent for all subsequent western political campaigns: they have learnt Nixon’s 1960 presidential lesson – never ignore the importance of appearing well on television.
By looking at the Kennedy-Nixon debates of 1960, we can see that they were important because they set the precedent of television having an enormous political influence, in terms of setting up and disseminating an instant and successful public image. The lesson of the importance and influence of television is one that no candidate for office has ever been able to ignore, either in America or wherever television has a widespread hold on mass-media communications.
Barnouw, E., The Image Empire (New York, Oxford University Press, 1972)
Havel, J.T., US Presidential Candidates and the Elections: A Biographical and Historical Guide (New York, Simon & Schuster Macmillan, 1996)
Nixon, R.M., Six Crises (London, W.H.Allen, 1962)
Paper, L.J., The Promise and the Performance: The Leadership of John. F.Kennedy (New York, Crown Publishers Inc., 1975)
Rorabaugh, W.J., Kennedy and the Promise of the Sixties (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2002)
 For example, the highly stage-managed presidential visit to China in 1972, in which Nixon was concerned to impress upon the electorate’s mind the image of a presidential diplomat, succeeding in establishing good relations with a country who had been an outspoken critic of America for over 20 years. He did this, of course, via a carefully controlled media campaign, which often seemed like a campaign for some new consumer item.
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