The Debate that Forever Changed Politics
November 15, 2015
I HARDLY EVER WRITE anything political.
But I am an observer of human nature, so I watch like politics the same way I watch spectator sports.
We are in the midst of a season of debates.
Pick your political party.
It doesn’t matter.
Some running for President are glib.
Some stumble on their words.
And that’s a shame.
We never elect men or women who can do a great job of running the country.
We elect men or women who can make good, memorized speeches.
Politics hasn’t changed our country.
And I well remember the debate that started it all.
It was not just an era that changed history.
It was a frozen moment in time when American politics would never be the same again.
The date was September 26, 1960.
The place was Chicago.
The time is unimportant.
The country settled back to see Vice President and seasoned campaigner Richard Nixon go face to face with a brash, upstart, young Catholic, John F. Kennedy, only forty-three years old, in the nation’s first televised Presidential Debate.
I was sitting there along the other seventy million viewers.
The television was black and white. The pictures were never clear, not even for test patterns.
America was embroiled in the Cold War.
We had nuclear missiles.
So did the Russians.
One of us would be annihilated before the decade ended.
That’s what the preachers said.
Found the scripture in Ezekiel, I think.
A Soviet spacecraft was orbiting the earth.
The Soviets would put men on the moon.
It would be the end of us all.
The preachers preached that, too.
America was ready to vote for a new President.
Lighting on the Chicago stage was harsh and brutal, to say the least.
But there stood Kennedy.
He was calm.
He looked refreshed.
He had charisma.
He looked like a leader.
We believed him even if he talked funny. The Massachusetts dialect didn’t play well in Texas. Never had. Never would.
And there stood the Vice President.
He looked frail.
He looked drained.
His gray suit was too large for him., and it made his face a shade of gray. His pancake makeup began to melt in the hot lights, and, Lord, his face looked flush and haggard, cursed with a five o’clock shadow.
Kennedy stared at the camera, and looked at America eyeball to eyeball.
Nixon’s shifty gaze never found the camera.
He looked like the Tricky Dick he became.
No one remembered what was said. The words, the policies, the rhetoric, the promises – none of it mattered.
A poll of radio listeners said that Nixon won the debate.
The seventy million television viewers overwhelmingly cast their vote for Kennedy.
He looked good.
He looked like a President.
After the debate, Kennedy’s mother called him and said, “Son, you were brilliant.”
Nixon’s mother called him and asked if he had been sick.
Well, he had been in the hospital. He had lost twenty pounds. He had not recovered.
He would never recover from the debate debacle on television.
He was certainly sick now.
From that single frozen moment forward, Presidential candidates would win or lose depending on their television performances.
The thought among American voters was: “I don’t care if the candidate is Presidential as long as he or she looks Presidential.”
Suddenly, it was all about image.
Nothing has changed.