Kennedy-Nixon debates redefined US politics

By Arthur I. Cyr ,Special to The China Post

During the last week of September fifty years ago, Sen. John F. Kennedy and Vice President Richard M. Nixon made history by debating face to face on nationwide TV — and also radio. The faceoff between the two presidential nominees, on the 26th of the month in Chicago, redefined American politics in terms of how candidates compete, communicate with one another and the voters, and use technology. The broadcast battle was the first of four debates, each notably in-depth by comparison with today’s short sound bite statements. Each man had a relatively lengthy eight minute opening presentation, with follow-up rebuttal statements. These path breaking battles drew a then unprecedented TV audience. Theodore H. White in “The Making of the President 1960” reports the estimated audience for each debate was at least 65 million people, with an overall total greater than the 90 million who saw the 1959 World Series between the Dodgers and the White Sox. The first debate was supposed to be about domestic policy, but Kennedy ignored that restriction. Time and again, he compared U.S. performance in economic growth, educational attainment, exploration of outer space and other fields to that of the Soviet Union.

None of the reporters pointed out JFK’s breach. Since FDR’s time, working reporters had tended toward the Democratic Party. Kennedy genuinely liked journalists, and he and his staff showed special skill in cultivating the press. The Cold War was intense, and Kennedy’s emphasis on Soviet strength reflected opinion of the time. A quarter century later, Japan was supposed to be burying the U.S. economically. Today, many have assigned that role to China. Politicians reflect the public sentiments of their times, and times change. When Kennedy began speaking from his chair, Nixon quietly pointed that out to moderator Howard K. Smith, who reminded Kennedy. Without missing a beat, JFK smoothly rose and walked to the podium.

John Kennedy’s ease contrasted with Richard Nixon’s tension, television highlighted this, and viewers overall felt Kennedy had the edge. By contrast, those who listened to the debates on radio generally thought Nixon had won.

By 1960, most American households had a TV. Those who listened to rather than watching the debates tended to be older, rural and more conservative, but that is not the entire explanation. Transcripts of the debates show Nixon’s comments to be more orderly, organized and specific. Yet Kennedy enjoyed the political triumph. By 1960, a plurality of the electorate lived in the suburbs. Though each candidate paid tribute to the American farmer, the sharp historic division between rural and urban, and between labor and the wealthy, was fading as the middle classes expanded.

Kennedy presented a fresh, sophisticated image seemingly more in tune with these newly suburban Americans. Author Norman Mailer captured this in an extreme but insightful Esquire magazine article titled “Super Man Comes to the Supermarket.” In September 1960, many Americans had only the vaguest image of JFK. Nixon constantly presented himself as more mature and experienced, at the right hand of Pres. Dwight Eisenhower. Using TV, Kennedy dramatically defined himself and equalized standing with Nixon. Debates among contenders as well as nominated candidates have now become a central feature of presidential politics. Rich insights, for our time and any time, resonate from the epic interchange of two talented leaders. You should review the program, especially if you never have watched — or listened to — the contest, and evaluate 2012 contenders against this high standard. Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College and author of “After the Cold War.” Cyr can be reached at [email protected]