As a means of preparing for the first presidential debate of 2020 this Tuesday night, I entered a You Tube time machine this past week and traveled back to late September, 1960, almost exactly 60 years ago. That’s when Vice President Richard Milhous Nixon of California squared off against Senator John Fitzgerald Kennedy of Massachusetts in the first of a series of four debates that stretched into mid-October, each of them lasting just under an hour.
Yes, I took one for the Traversing team by watching all four over a few days, feeling mostly, I am glad to report, riveted. Just underneath that feeling, though, I noted a mixture of lamentation over how much has changed—mostly not for the better—in presidential debates over the subsequent decades.
Let’s get to the one glaring improvement right out of the blocks here. In the four 1960 debates, there were four panelists and one moderator for each debate. The four panelists were different each time, as were the moderators, with the exception of NBC’s Frank McGee, who moderated two debates.
Nineteen print or broadcast journalists total.
All 19 of them middle-aged white males.
Add the candidates, and it made for 21.
That complete white male domination of the important man’s man work of quizzing the man’s man candidates on stage? We are never going back to that world, its very strangeness so awful from the first moments…
The difference in the media landscape now is staggering. Although the format was different in 2016, with single moderator/panelists in two of the three debates and a duo in the other, the four total moderators are not at all unrepresentative of today’s media world: a straight black man (Lester Holt), a gay white man (Anderson Cooper), a straight woman (Martha Raddatz), and a straight white man (Chris Wallace).
And up on stage, a straight white man and the first woman major party presidential nominee in American history.
That complete white male domination of the important man’s man work of quizzing the man’s man candidates on stage? We are never going back to that world, its very strangeness so awful from the first moments, as if it were held on some distant, white males-only planet that all these men had rocketed to for the event. The sight of it, in all its shocking glare, stands as a testament to just how much has changed (for the better) in my own lifetime.
But then there’s all the rest of it. To behold Kennedy and Nixon holding forth on the great issues of the day, with ready command of facts, fluid speaking styles with nary a pause, gaffe, sneer or gloat, in sometimes strenuous disagreement but always with a sense of decorum befitting the office they were questing, is to feel shortchanged today.
It is to feel our intelligence belittled by carefully rehearsed soundbites from candidates jammed by impossibly tight time constraints. (“Your health plan, please—you have 60 seconds.”)
It is to endure preening from media star panelists who have themselves become part of a reality TV juggernaut, along with studio audiences whose hoots and hollers give the entire proceedings the air of a freak show on a carnival midway.
The lily white male nature of the 1960s panelists aside, these were serious journalists who did not consider themselves part of the story or fuss about their hair or their ratings, but were instead there to perform a necessary but not star-turning function. They tended to be as gray in temperament as the black-and-white television presentations they were part of, which lent a proper air, in my view, of dignity and self-restraint to the proceedings.
As the debates wore on, disagreements became sharper and objections more strenuous when each candidate felt the other had distorted his position. These were warriors, after all, vying for a surpassingly important chiefdom.
That said, never did the proceedings descend to the kind of vituperation, derision and “gotcha” attacks we have seen all too regularly in both parties’ primary debates of recent years, and in the 2016 Trump-Clinton debates, a selection of which, my dear friends, I also subjected myself to in preparation for this post, to the extent I could stand. (Yes, I will gladly take your expressions of sympathy and comfort whenever you see fit to offer them for throwing myself on that grenade…)
Nixon in particular, and ironically, considering his ignominious downfall another 13 years hence, made every effort to emphasize his and Kennedy’s shared goals and broad agreement on a number of matters concerning America’s place in the world and, most importantly, the battle against authoritarianism. (More on the latter below.)
These lines are plucked just from his opening statement in the first debate, the spirit of them repeated regularly over subsequent debates when Nixon, crafty politico that he was, wanted to emphasize his statesmanship just before launching a substantive zinger at what he considered Kennedy’s well-intentioned but misbegotten policies on any number of issues.
“…The things that Senator Kennedy has said many of us can agree with….I subscribe completely to the spirit that Senator Kennedy has expressed tonight… Here again, may I indicate that Senator Kennedy and I are not in disagreement as to the aims….The question is the means…”
Nixon ended that eight-minute opening statement with this, which not only continued his avoidance of questioning Kennedy’s character or motives, but also draws the fault lines of Republican vs. Democratic arguments on poverty, among many other issues, in a way that has changed not a whit in the 60 years since:
“The final point that I would like to make is this: Senator Kennedy has suggested in his speeches that we lack compassion for the poor, for the old, and for others that are unfortunate. Let us understand throughout this campaign that his motives and mine are sincere. I know what it means to be poor. I know what it means to see people who are unemployed. I know Senator Kennedy feels as deeply about these problems as I do, but our disagreement is not about the goals for America but only about the means to reach those goals.”
Now a few words about foreign relations and America’s place in the world. This matter undergirded even the debate segments devoted to domestic policy, given that both candidates emphasized that leadership on the world stage is critically dependent on keeping our own house in order.
This was 1960, remember, entering still softly on the heels of the dreamy ‘50s, before the Vietnam quagmire, the rise of the hippies and an overt drug culture, and the burning of cities by blacks finally sick unto death of their lives not mattering.
Then, as now, two distant nemeses bestrode the international stage, trying to elbow America off it.
Kennedy and Nixon were both cold warriors, vehemently anti-authoritarian after having sifted through the shattered material and metaphorical remnants of World War II, the drastic takeover of Eastern Europe and beyond by the Russians, and China’s ever encroaching domination of Asia.
Rather curiously, the fate of a few small islands off Taiwan led to repeated clashes between the candidates, which moderators seemed unable to resist returning to through multiple debates.
And though the issue gave rise to each party’s historic tropes—Nixon accusing Kennedy of being permissive with China, Kennedy implying Nixon was a warmonger, unnecessarily inflaming the situation—the far more relevant point is just how seriously both candidates viewed their responsibilities of managing what they considered the mortal and persistent threat posed by the same two Communist powers that today remain our staunch and powerful ideological foes.
While both candidates spoke hopefully of future efforts at disarmament, neither was deluded in the least about just how arduous those efforts would be. Nor how vulnerable freedom always is in a fallen world whose agenda is driven all too often by bad actors who not only display fear, distrust, greed and treachery, but also cultivate those qualities in their people, pitting them against each other as a means of retaining power.
Of course, the specter of today’s Republican president cozying up to the Soviet premier, speaking approvingly of China’s genocide of an ethnic population, “falling in love” with the North Korean dictator and expressing ongoing admiration for other despots around the world, all while his party’s congressional delegations look on benignly, would surely have not only Kennedy but Nixon, too, clawing at their graves, trying to rise once more to sound their well-honed and earnest alarms against authoritarianism.
The plain fact of that threat now being evident from within, from the very presidency each man pursued with a promise to protect the nation’s freedom above all, would surely earn their everlasting ire.
So here, in the wake of my 1960 debates tour, are my main concerns about Tuesday night and the two other debates to follow.
• The two-hour format is patently ridiculous. The one-hour allotted to the candidates in 1960 was packed and crisp, dense with content that provided meaningful forums for each candidate to make his views on many different issues known. It was also plenty enough to give viewers insights into their character, approaches to discourse, and their grace under fire.
If it can’t be said and revealed in an hour and two more after that, the entire proceedings are probably more about the candidates blathering on with sound bites or carefully honed insults and traps, which the media scoop up like shiny oysters and harvest for ratings that keep them running the tape for days.
• Thankfully, blessedly, there were no“spin rooms”in 1960, no preening “expert” panelists poring over every pimple on a candidate’s chin, misstated date or verbal stumble. No post-debate interviews of campaign managers (“How do you think your candidate did?” “Great!”), or the candidates themselves (“How do you think you did?” “Great!”).
Is there anything more absurd than asking naked partisans such questions? “Naked partisans” also accurately describes many of the media “analysts” who weigh in on the debates, their affiliations clear as day, dripping with disdain for the candidate they don’t support. Do we really need this kind of input to help us understand and sift through what we just saw?
There is a kind of intellectual laziness implied by the whole post-debate show that really doesn’t amount to beans, focused as it tends to be on the superficialities of combativeness rather than policy contrasts, invective rather than information, appearance rather than intelligence. But it is seemingly with us to stay, though my increasing sense is we may well do better to simply click the TV off as soon as the debate ends, then take the dog for a walk and perhaps catch a star.
Ironically, many historical analyses of the 1960 debates do focus on the superficiality of appearance—specifically comparing Kennedy’s youthful vigor to Nixon’s sallow visage. This was especially remarked upon in the first debate, which drew the most viewers at 70 million people, at least 20 million more than watched the others.
Nixon, as it happened, had been ill through the week, both from the flu and a lingering knee infection he had incurred after banging it into a car door on the campaign trail—and which he reinjured entering the studio for the debate. And once under the studio lights, he began to visibly, if not dramatically, perspire on his chin, which became a huge and lasting media takeaway.
Indeed, it had been one of the very few items I had remembered from the debate myself over these many years, having watched as a 9-year-old with a budding interest in the daily newspaper and the affairs of the world that my parents followed with sustained attention, them being Hungarian immigrants who had fled the ravages of post-war Europe.
Interestingly, I watched for the tell-tale perspiration to appear again this week, and as it did, I noted it briefly to myself—and promptly forgot about it as I absorbed the truly significant content prompted by on-point questions from the panelists.
Historians, it turns out, tend to view the 1960 debates as the beginning of the mass media age for politics, since they were the first to be televised. Sure, it was a serious and sober affair, in marked contrast to so much of what passes for “debate” today. But in the inevitable capture and objectification of image that is part and parcel of the visual world, seeing the candidates as few voters had ever seen them before was a turning point, both for the voters and the candidates themselves.
Candidates suddenly had to concern themselves with matters such as makeup, their complexion under artificial light, and the “likability” they might engender or not depending upon their smile, their reactions to their opponents, and other matters that had never before required their attention.
• Finally, how does one debate a relentless liar who launches falsehoods into the atmosphere like spring trees do pollen? And whose main form of “debate” consists of personal insults?
Donald Trump is the master of personal invective; it is all he knows. It’s how he keeps himself and his base entertained and his opponents off balance and on the defensive, fruitlessly trying to chase down his lies and play on his terms.
I’m certain Biden’s team has prepared him for that with exhaustive hours of practice and clever ripostes, but the prospect of listening to such guff exhausts me just thinking about it. Are we supposed to watch a couple hours of post-debate fact-checking by a network to set the record straight?
My own comfort in this matter comes from my belief that this election doesn’t really hinge on Biden’s or even Trump’s “performance” in these debates.
Trump’s lies and character defects are both legion and universally known, and that fact either revolts you, as well it should, or you have sloughed it off in some deal with denial or the devil.
This election is above all a referendum on Donald Trump. So as long as Biden doesn’t turn suddenly catatonic or starts ripping his clothes off mid-debate, very few viewers will be changing their minds about who these candidates are.
And then there is Biden’s now much-chronicled stuttering problem, which put huge swaths of his historical public utterances into perspective when it became widely revealed over the past year. My own sense is that Biden should talk about his stuttering himself, maybe even in his opening statement, before Trump does so in the utterly boorish way that is his stock in trade, or the media does so in the post-debate analyses if Biden stumbles at any turn.
The fact that a lifelong stutterer is on the verge of becoming president of the United States should be celebrated and understood fully, for all it says about the human will, destigmatization, and inclusiveness. It will be a true testament to the diversity that has always been, through struggles historic and courageous, our greatest strength and hope for our future as a united nation of states.
A recent offering from one of our most eloquent and incisive musical prophets…
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