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Substance, style, and myth in the Kennedy-Nixon debates

On the evening of 26 September 1960, in Chicago, Illinois, a presidential debate occurred that changed the nature of national politics.

Sixty-five years ago debates and campaign speeches for national audiences were relatively rare. In fact, this was the first live televised presidential debate in U.S. history.

The two presidential aspirants were both youthful but seemed to present a contrast between substance and style: Richard M. Nixon, from working class origins, appeared to represent the former. He had spent the previous eight years as vice president and had served in the senate and in the house of representative. John. F. Kennedy signified the later. A single-term senator, previously in the house, he was from a wealthy, Catholic, New England political family.

A whopping seventy million people tuned in to witness the confrontation (the U.S. population was 180 million, so roughly 60 percent or more of the adult population watched). Scholars (and observers at the time) agree that this debate signified a turning point in the election. Kennedy essentially won by showing up. Wearing a form fitting dark suit, Kennedy looked directly into the camera. He performed confidently and thereby came across presidential. He practiced extensively and rested up for the event. Nixon, on the other hand, effectively lost by showing up. He appeared un-presidential, wore a loose gray suit, looking pale, and was sweating profusely. (He had been campaigning hard, had been sick and lost weight before the debate). Nixon, trying to be less combative, also was less adept at looking right into the camera.

Kennedy began the debate nervously but resolutely gazed into the lens as he delivered an eloquent opening statement: “In the election of 1860, Abraham Lincoln said the question was whether this nation could exist half-slave or half-free. In the election of 1960, and with the world around us, the question is whether the world will exist half-slave or half-free, whether it will move in the direction of freedom, in the direction of the road that we are taking, or whether it will move in the direction of slavery.”

Nixon did well with his opening content but not in delivery. He, too, began hesitantly. Eyes drifting, he ceded ground with even his very first words, saying: “The things that Senator Kennedy has said many of us can agree with. There is no question but that we cannot discuss our internal affairs in the United States without recognizing that they have a tremendous bearing on our international position.” Nixon remained agreeable throughout out the debate. He sought to “erase the assassin,” as advised by running mate Henry Cabot Lodge. Indeed, some political insiders, such as pro-Kennedy journalist Joe Alsop thought that this was a good tactic for Nixon. For more on the debate see the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library.

What is usually cited as exceptional about this first of four debates was the formative impact of image. As Frank Stanton, president of CBS at the time, put it bluntly: “Kennedy was bronzed beautifully . . . Nixon looked like death.” Don Hewitt, who produced the debate, agreed. Upon seeing the candidates together on screen before the event began, Hewitt pushed Nixon’s advisers to mop off the already melting Lazy-Shave powder (a drug store pancake makeup which an aide applied because of Nixon’s permanent five o’clock shadow) and have a professional makeup artist make him look less sweaty and pale. Nixon, a seasoned performer on television and in debates and press conferences, and team declined.

This was clearly a mistake. One glance at an image of the two men side-by-side reveals the obvious. Kennedy looked like “a matinee idol,” as observers opined; Nixon paled in comparison.

Post-debate newspaper coverage and surveys immediately suggested not a landslide but a slight positive turn toward Kennedy. The New York Times was characteristic, reporting on September 27th: “For the most part, the exchanges were distinguished by a suavity, earnestness and courtesy that suggested that the two men were more concerned about ‘image projection’ to their huge television audience than about scoring debating points.”

But a closer look at surveys, such as by Sindlinger & Co., seemed to suggest a different case: those who identified as watching the debate on television deemed Kennedy the clear winner, while those who said they listened on the radio gave the edge to Nixon. It was a classic case of style trumping substance. Or was it?

First, most such polls and surveys did not control for crucial variables such as pre-debate preferences (party, religion, etc.), making it exceedingly difficult to determine how much the debate changed preexisting views.

Second, by 1960 radio listeners were by no means a random sample. Roughly 88 percent of households in the U.S. had televisions (up from 11 percent in 1950). Listeners were more likely to be in rural areas, tended to be Protestant, and skewed to bias against Kennedy. How representative these studies were also is very much in doubt. (Sindlinger, for example, seems to have only sampled 282 radio listeners, far fewer than peers would have considered for a plausible random sample.) As political scientist James Druckman clarified, “relative to television viewers, radio listeners may have been predisposed to favor Nixon over Kennedy.” Thus the role of image (if it is singular at all) needs to be tested more rigorously; these anecdotal surveys simply cannot not be relied on.

As Druckman documented in a 2003 article in the Journal of Politics on a range of new tests with fresh subjects watching and listening to the 1960 debate, he found that at least for contemporary viewers image did matter centrally to shaping perceptions of the “winner” and thus the effects of this first debate. But Druckman indicated that it is also significant that Kennedy performed so well in in articulating his policies. As historian David Greenberg persuasively explained, “the notion that Nixon won on radio but lost the debate—and, in some tellings, the presidency—‘only’ because Kennedy looked better on the tube turns out to be lacking in much support.”

So, yes, image was crucial, but it also seems that what Kennedy had to say and how he approached the issues—most notably his apparent lack of experience, which he parried by discussing his work in Congress and his philosophies of “effective government” and anti-communism in contrast to the past Administration’s period of “stagnation”—was significant as well. Indeed, the very split between substance and style is arbitrary and may not be particularly illuminating. A blended recognition of the intertwined role of—and recognition of the limits of—substance as well as style helps us to better see what made the charismatic, fresh Kennedy such a revelation in 1960 but also reveals why Nixon continued to poll so strongly as well. So, what was new about September 26, 1960 and why does it matter today?

Until the election of 1960, the medium of television had not been central to politics and vice versa. In 1952, for instance, Republican Dwight Eisenhower ran presidential ads featuring a format of real Americans “asking Ike” called “Eisenhower Answers America” but Democratic Adlai Stevenson refused to appear in televised advertisements and frowned on candidates being “marketed like soap.”

Communications scholars and historians note that until the early 1960s television was much more of an entertainment medium. In fact, the Kennedy-Nixon debates had a chilling effect because they seemed to matter so much. The next live televised presidential debate did not occur for another decade and a half. Risk-averse candidates worried about the twin roles of substance and style on TV – incumbents, those with significant experience, or those who were not as telegenic, like Nixon, could generally only lose, while challengers of various types, particularly those whose looks and abilities were well-suited to the medium, would likely benefit disproportionately.

In this way, 1960 marked a break from the old. Elements of today’s info-entertainment form of politicking, where style often trumps substance, are age-old in American politics but their reach into living rooms across the nation and their impact in shaping candidate pools, and thus elections, is new. Televised political stumping developed with widespread ramifications for American politics – connecting with the audience and “winning” were vitally important. How a candidate looked and sounded merged with how audiences felt about the candidates in ways fully recognizable today but new in the 1960s. Until that time most Americans read or saw photos of candidates but never really had the opportunity to experience them in the more personal format offered by television.

Six weeks later, a record number came out to vote in the national election. As predicted, it was a close race. Kennedy secured a narrow popular vote victory: 49.7 percent to 49.5 percent. Polling by Gallup and others revealed that a narrow majority of voters reported being influenced by four televised “great debates,” and as many as six percent claimed that the debates were decisive for them.

Moving beyond the myth of image as determining close elections such as Kennedy’s victory over Nixon in 1960, televised presidential debates have been standard practice—and virtually omnipresent—in American political life. Even those who never watch a debate live are exposed. So, too, the false litmus test of a substance-style divide has become a central feature of how Americans evaluate politicians.

Featured image credit: “Photo of the second of the four presidential debates held during the 1960 presidential election. This debate took place in Washington D.C. at NBC’s WRC-TV studios on October 7, 1960” by United Press International. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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  1. […] not know her history. If Clinton knew her presidential campaign history, she would realize that “style” matters even more than “substance” in campaigns ever since the first televised debates in 1960 […]

  2. […] not know her history. If Clinton knew her presidential campaign history, she would realize that “style” matters even more than “substance” in campaigns ever since the first televised debates in 1960 […]

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