“TV has altered drastically the nature of our political campaigns, conventions, constituents, candidates, and costs” — Senator John F. Kennedy
For the very first time, a debate between presidential candidates was broadcast on television for the consideration of the American people. In 1960, the two presidential hopefuls were a Democratic Senator from Massachusetts named John. F. Kennedy, and Richard M. Nixon, the serving Vice-President of the United States.
Kennedy went into the debate with several disadvantages. Outside of his home state of Massachusetts, he was relatively unknown. He was also young and Roman Catholic, neither of which would work in his favor, and he was going up against an incumbent to boot. All daunting challenges, but Senator Kennedy managed to pull it off — and then some.
In November 1959, an article written by Senator John F. Kennedy appeared as part of a series TV Guide was presenting called, “Television As I See It.” JFK’s contribution was titled “A Force That Has Changed The Political Scene,” and it left no doubt that Kennedy would be a shrewd manipulator of the medium during his run for the presidency over the following year.
Kennedy pointed out that an obvious advantage television provided was the number of people a politician could reach at one time. In 1919, Woodrow Wilson embarked upon a month-long cross-country railroad trip to campaign for the League of Nations. The excursion ended when the exhausted Wilson suffered a stroke. In the television age, then-President Eisenhower could reach millions of people without ever leaving the White House.
But it was the power of the televised image that was changing the political landscape most drastically, and Kennedy advised the reader that “It is in your power to perceive deception, to shut off gimmickry, to reward honesty, to demand legislation where needed. Without your approval, no TV show is worthwhile and no politician can exist.”
Kennedy certainly understood the importance of projecting a presidential image. This was seen in full-force when he challenged Vice President Richard Nixon in the first-ever televised presidential campaign debate. Kennedy appeared well-groomed, calm and collected while Nixon, on the other hand, showed up with 5 o’clock shadow acting flustered and ill-at-ease. After winning the election, Kennedy skillfully cultivated a relationship with the press that he always worked to his advantage (the whole Camelot business, for example).
JFK and television was a match made in heaven. TV played a huge part in securing the charming and photogenic Kennedy’s presidency, but the effects were even more far-reaching than that. This single 60-minute debate between the tanned, debonair Irish-American and the ill-at-ease pale guy changed how political campaigns were handled and how television media covered them forever.
“It’s one of those unusual points on the timeline of history where you can say things changed very dramatically — in this case, in a single night,” says Alan Schroeder, a media historian and associate professor at Northeastern University, who authored the book, Presidential Debates: Forty Years of High-Risk TV.
Ted Sorenson, Kennedy’s speech writer and aide, recalls helping the candidate prep for the debate while on the roof of their hotel in Chicago, quizzing Kennedy on topics that were likely to come up during its course while the presidential-hopeful caught some rays. After many hours of honing responses to anticipated questions and giving a speech before a labor union, Kennedy went to take a nap before the big show. “The story I like to tell is of when they delegated me to go wake him up,” Sorensen said. “I opened the door and peaked in and there he was, lights on, sound asleep, covered in notecards.”
What happened when the two candidates got behind their podiums is an iconic moment in American politics. Nixon looked like death warmed-over, waxen and underweight from a recent hospitalization, while Kennedy appeared healthy, tan, calm, and confident. And yeah, I’ll say it. Pretty damn studly.
Interestingly, many of those listening to the debate on the radio thought that Nixon had won — but those radio listeners were in the vast minority. 88% of American households had television sets by 1960, and those watching the debate on TV declared Senator Kennedy the clear winner.
Many believe that Kennedy won the 1960 Presidential election that very night. At a campaign event in Ohio the day after the debate, the crowds were much larger than they had previously been. That’s when the Kennedy team knew that at the very least they had gained strong support within the Democratic Party.
Nixon stepped up to the plate and did much better in the following debates, but the damage had been done. In November 1960, Kennedy himself was quick to acknowledge the enormous role that television had played in his victory. “With the Nation Watching,” a 1979 task force report, notes, “The Nixon-Kennedy debates made televised encounters between candidates the hottest thing in electioneering since the campaign button.
But according to President Kennedy, the merging of the media with politics was not without its serious drawbacks, such as “manipulation, exploitation and gimmicks.” He was worried that political campaigns “could be taken over by public relations experts, who tell the candidate not only how to use TV but what to say, what to stand for and what kind of person to be.”
He was even more concerned about “financial cost.”
“If all parties and candidates are to have equal access to this essential and decisive campaign medium, without becoming deeply obligated to the big financial contributors … then the time has come when a solution must be found to this problem of TV costs.”
Big Money donors taking over the American political system and electoral process? Never!