Some things never change. Or perhaps they change slowly, even over decades. But set the Wayback Machine to early fall 1960, Sherman, and we’ll visit the Kennedy-Nixon presidential debates. On September 26, 70 million TV viewers in the U.S. tuned in to watch Democratic Senator John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts and Republican Vice President Richard Nixon go at it in a televised presidential debate, the first ever. This first-of-four debates centered on domestic issues. The results are legendary, perhaps creeping into cliché.
In this relatively new medium, candidate Nixon fared poorly. He was underweight from illness, and his trademark five o’clock shadow was in full bloom. By comparison, Kennedy — only four years younger —was tanned, rested and poised, seeming much younger. Nixon seemed discomfited by his princely opponent, and while radio listeners thought he was the winner, the 70 million viewers were impressed by what they saw. There were three subsequent debates, which most observers of the day believed that Nixon won. But you know what they say about first impressions — Nixon never recovered, and that probably created his losing razor-thin margin.
According to writer Erika Tyner Allen, “The impact on the election of 1960 was significant, albeit subtle…. At election time, more than half of all voters reported that the Great Debates had influenced their opinion; 6 percent reported that their vote was the result of the debates alone. Thus, regardless of whether the debates changed the election result, voters pointed to the debates as a significant reason for electing Kennedy.”
When Kennedy ran for president, he had served in the U.S. Senate for little more than one undistinguished term. Nixon was a sitting two-term vice president with a reputation for fighting communists at home. Fast forward to today, and we have a relatively inexperienced senator winning primary elections because of his preternatural oratorical skills. He may be going against a war hero who is in his 70s. Despite the much-vaunted power of the World Wide Web, the Internet is still mostly a fund-raising tool. After nearly 50 years, TV is STILL the medium that familiarizes candidates. And it is still speaking skills that make that connection. If they face off in November, how will the seasoned senator with the respected resume fare against the acolyte orator? Is it style over substance, or is style actually substance in this case? Is the talent to move people, to motivate them to action, what the American Presidency really needs? My biases tend more to the former. I believe that certain Presidents in the latter part of the 20th Century showed us that substance is critical.
What do you think? I would like to know your thoughts on this, and I would like to keep this topic up-to-date as we move together through this historic election period.
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