The two candidates sat on a simple stage, without audience. Their statements were not punctuated by applause or cheers. There were no commercial breaks. Yet this first debate was a crucial moment in U.S. politics, and propelled us toward the entertainment-focused political atmosphere we have today.
If you read accounts of the debate, it becomes clear how powerful the novel medium of television and its accompanying appearance focus was. Those who watched the debate were certain that JFK won—but according to 60 Minutes founder Don Hewitt, and those who listened to the debate, Nixon won: his words were the more persuasive. But while Kennedy looked “tan and fit…this guy was a matinee idol,” Nixon looked “like death warmed over”:
Don also attributed Kennedy’s debate victory to his greater preparation. “Kennedy took it seriously,” Don recalled in a 1997 interview with the Archive of American Television. “Kennedy knew it was going to be important. He rested that afternoon. Nixon made a speech to the Carpenters Union that day in Chicago — thought this was just another campaign appearance that night — was ill. Arrived at the studio, banged his knee when he got out of the car, was in pain, looked green, sallow, needed a shave.”
“Should a presidential election turn on makeup? No, but this one did,” Don said, because by refusing makeup, Nixon looked pale and unhealthy compared to Kennedy. With the increasing power and pervasiveness of television in America, both appearances and preparation were never again ignored whenever a television camera came within range of a candidate.
This began a pivotal change in the nature of political presidential campaigns: increasingly, we became drawn to the persuasiveness of appearance, the charisma of personality, the appeal of a dynamic, celebrity personality. JFK was young, good-looking, and smooth in the delivery of his points. He crossed his legs and leaned back in his chair, giving a look of comfort and coolness. His speech was full of rhetorical phrases and flourish. The frowning seriousness, and data-laden points of Nixon paled by comparison.
Our politics have since been dominated by charisma and charm: with politicians like Ronald Reagan—originally a Hollywood actor, who obviously had a natural ease with the camera—and Bill Clinton, who’s said to captivate a room almost as soon as he walks into it. These smooth, friendly personalities may also be good, thoughtful politicians. But their electability often relies more on the former than on the latter.
It’s funny to think that the Nixon-Kennedy debate could have been as election-changing as it was. When you compare it to the debates we have now, it’s exceedingly sober and serious. The candidates actually get into gritty details about the economy, and how best to help the American populace. Compare this to the regularity with which our modern debates focus on larger, more rhetorically-promising speeches about American exceptionalism, opportunity, and the “American Dream.”
Not to mention the stadium-like atmosphere, the epic background music, and the media personalities who push for controversial questions and sensational answers. There’s a cheering crowd, flashing lights, belligerent back-and-forth exchanges between debaters. And I’m pretty sure all of them wear makeup.
There are several benefits to televised debates: they help politicians connect with voters who maybe don’t pick up a newspaper on a regular basis. Debates force candidates to enunciate their ideas in high-stakes situations, occasionally revealing important flaws and logical breaks in their thinking or platforms. And they give us all the opportunity to live-tweet snarky comments to each other, which has to be one of the greatest of journalistic enjoyments.
But when we see the polls come out after televised debates, showing who people think “won” in the dynamic exchange of opinions, one can’t help wondering whether the results would be the same if people had just listened to the debates—if they were unswayed by the outfits of some, the comical or angry expressions of others. Would we pay more attention to their ideas, and less to their makeup?
Tonight’s debate will likely be another exciting show—but it will be just that, a show. And it’s important not to forget that, amidst the lights and colors and charisma, real (and dangerous) ideas still lurk.