Fifty years ago, Kennedy and Nixon changed our politics forever
By Michael M. Bates
On September 26, 1960, Senator John Kennedy and Vice President Richard Nixon appeared in the first of what came to be called the Great Debates. How great they truly were is subject to dispute. But there's no doubt they altered American politics permanently.
Kennedy looked tanned and rested, while Nixon had been ill and appeared fatigued. The Republican turned down an offer of stage makeup. That may have determined the future of the Nation.
Out of about 180 million citizens, 70 million watched that debate. Many believed Kennedy won decisively. It didn't matter that sometimes JFK's words made little sense:
"Well, I would say in the latter that the - and that's what I found uh - somewhat unsatisfactory about the figures uh - Mr. Nixon, that you used in your previous speech, when you talked about the Truman Administration. You - Mr. Truman came to office in nineteen uh - forty-four and at the end of the war, and uh - difficulties that were facing the United States during that period of transition - 1946 when price controls were lifted - so it's rather difficult to use an overall figure taking those seven and a half years and comparing them to the last eight years. I prefer to take the overall percentage record of the last twenty years of the Democrats and the eight years of the Republicans to show an overall period of growth. . . I am chairman of the subcommittee on Africa and I think that one of the most unfortunate phases of our policy towards that country was the very minute number of exchanges that we had. I think it's true of Latin America also. We did come forward with a program of students for the Congo of over three hundred which was more than the federal government had for all of Africa the previous year, so that I don't think that uh - we have moved at least in those two areas with sufficient vigor."
This meandering mess has at least two factual errors. Truman became president in 1945, not 1944, and Africa isn't a country.
Yet it made little difference. John Kennedy looked like he knew what he was talking about, and that was adequate. Historian Daniel J. Boorstin likened the 1960 debates to the quiz shows that were popular at the time:
"These four programs, pompously and self-righteously advertised by the broadcast networks, were remarkably successful in reducing great national issues to trivial dimensions. With appropriate vulgarity, they might have been called the $400,000 Question (Prize: a $100,000-a-year job for four years)."
The next presidential debates happened when, far behind in the polls, President Ford challenged Jimmy Carter to them in 1976. At one meeting, Ford claimed: "There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe . . ." That patently inaccurate statement would haunt him as he lost an extremely tight contest.
Carter avoided serious mistakes with 1980 opponent Ronald Reagan. Still, even the president's partisans must have scratched their heads when he talked about nuclear weapons and ended with, "I had a discussion with my daughter, Amy, the other day, before I came here, to ask her what the most important issue was . . ."
Four years later Democrats hoped for a major Reagan gaffe in his two encounters with Walter Mondale, but it didn't happen. President Reagan edged out the Minnesotan 49 states to one.
In 1988, a turning point in Democrat Michael Dukakis's campaign came during a debate with George Bush. CNN's Bernard Shaw asked, "Governor, if Kitty Dukakis were raped and murdered, would you favor an irrevocable death penalty for the killer?"
Showing no emotion, Dukakis answered: "No, I don't, Bernard, and I think you know that I've opposed the death penalty during all of my life. I don't see any evidence that it's a deterrent, and I think there are better and more effective ways to deal with violent crime." Oops. Bye, bye, Mikey.
Candidates in 1992's debates steered clear of major blunders. One memorable instance occurred when a thirty-something man in the audience inquired of the candidates: "And I ask the three of you, how can we, as symbolically the children of the future president, expect the two of you, the three of you, to meet our needs . . ."
We have indeed been reduced to a people needing to be coddled, protected, taken care of, patronized and patted on the butt. In a country in which a third of us can't identify even one of the three Federal branches, it's no wonder presidential debates take on significance far beyond their genuine worth.
So now we sit there, watching presidential debates, waiting to see who can promise us the most as candidates regurgitate their best sound bites. Get out the popcorn for sixty or ninety minutes of scripted theatrics appealing to greed and stupidity, not necessarily in that order. Then the talking heads are trotted out to tell us what we just heard and if any of the candidates made a big mistake.
It's superficial, shallow and foolish. It's what we expect in presidential debates; the contenders don't disappoint. And Kennedy and Nixon started it all, 50 years ago.
Michael M. Bates is a regular contributor to Enter Stage Right. His web site can be found at http://www.michaelmbates.com/.