When John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon took the stage for the first of four televised debates on September 26, 1960, the world of politics changed forever. Nixon was recovering from knee surgery and looked gaunt and ill-prepared as he sweated under the glare of the lights. In contrast, the sun-tanned young junior senator from Massachusetts appeared fit and confident as he answered questions from Howard K. Smith, the venerable CBS reporter and moderator for that evening’s exchange on domestic affairs. The debates were Kennedy’s idea and it was soon apparent why—his youth, good lucks and confident demeanor put his opponent at a distinct disadvantage.
At this point, 88 percent of Americans owned at least one TV set, and the medium had eclipsed radio as the primary source for news. Ed Murrow and his “Murrow Boys” had ushered in the golden age of American TV journalism (though, as Lynne Olson and Stanley Cloud point out, he far preferred radio) and the other major networks were trying everything in their power to catch up with CBS. Eager to raise his profile and to put a dent in Nixon’s campaign, Kennedy was spot on in his deduction that, with the help of Ted Sorensen and other advisors, he could become the favorite once he got in front of the cameras. 74 million viewers tuned in for that opening exchange, and Kennedy later acknowledged, “It was the TV more than anything else that turned the tide.”
Though the debate was spirited and the participants were far apart ideologically, they treated each other courteously and avoided insults and undue criticism. Indeed, a New York Times subhead declared that “Sharp Retorts are Few as Candidates Meet Face to Face.” How times have changed!
In the United States, it is now inconceivable to think of a national political race without TV, though in England the first TV debate between prime ministerial candidates took just before David Cameron’s election triumph. And yet, despite our familiarity with the medium, it is worth considering if we put too much emphasis on how our would-be leaders fare on the box.
Do we count out less telegenic candidates that may have flourished in a bygone era? Have we put too much power in the hands of moderators and their potential agendas? Is it fair to dismiss a politician after a major gaffe?
Certainly, the definition of what makes a “good speaker” has changed. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, audiences packed halls to see scientists introduce new wonders, to hear authors talk about their new books and to listen to lecturers ply their trade. Then, during World War II, British audiences were spellbound by Winston Churchill’s inspirational and defiant rhetoric, yet, when asked if he would permit live TV broadcast of his “iron curtain” speech in 1946, he replied curtly, “I deprecate complicating the occasion with technical experiments.” He, for one, was better suited to well-prepared speeches than impromptu exchanges. Despite being a formidable opponent in the House of Commons, would he have floundered or flourished in a TV debate?
Another questionable element of the TV forum is sponsorship. Media outlets across the ideological spectrum want in on the act, and YouTube has even extended the format to the web. How long until other companies get in on the act, and we have a Tostitos Debate on National Security or a Five Hour Energy Debate on Foreign Affairs, complete with tailored, Super Bowl-like commercials?
And then there’s the matter of frequency. Do we really need to see debate after debate to make up our minds who to vote for, or does the over-exposure and increasingly repetitive content just turn us off? Do we benefit from celebrities weighing in on TMZ about their favorite candidates’ virtues, or denunciations of those they oppose?
The tone of the candidates’ conversation is also subject to scrutiny. A far cry from the civilized banter between JFK and Tricky Dick more than 50 years ago, we appear to be nearing the point at which we will either fashion the competitors with rotten fruit or jousting lances before they go on the air. Perhaps that would make for “better” TV, or at least allow us to confess that, beyond gaining new insight into the candidates’ views, we love seeing one gladiator emerging triumphant from the arena while another is left bloodied and vanquished. Excuse me, I’m off to watch UFC on Fox.