Presidential debates: some background

by Christopher B. Daly 

With the second presidential debate of the 2012 election set for Tuesday evening, the stakes could not be higher. Everyone in the media seems to be handicapping the event. David Carr weighed in this morning, and the issue is all over the cable talk shows, NPR, and elsewhere. As a public service, I am offering this historical perspective — an excerpt from my recent book, Covering America.

In the fall of 1960, many Americans were still in the process of getting to know Jack Kennedy. Just forty-three years old, he represented the World War II generation, declaring himself ready to take over from Eisenhower, the very man who had commanded the young troops in wartime. Kennedy was not only young, he was also rich, good-looking, and married to a very photogenic wife. With his distinctive accent, his cool demeanor, and his ironic wit, he was well suited to the new medium that was about to make its mark on American politics in a dramatic way—television. Just in time for the 1960 election, Congress had passed a law repealing the FCC’s “equal time” rule, which had required broadcasters to give equal amounts of air time to all candidates for office, including fringe candidates and cranks. In 1960, for example, there were more than a dozen political parties offering candidates for president. It would have been impossible—and perhaps illegal—for a broadcaster to hold a debate that excluded any of them.  In a step that went a long way toward perpetuating the dominance of the two major parties, Congress decided to lift that ban for the 1960 campaign and to have the FCC study the issue. When the new law was signed on August 24, 1960, the way was clear for the networks to approach the Democrat Kennedy and the Republican Nixon and offer them an exclusive one-on-one format for the first televised presidential debate in history.

 

The challenger, Kennedy, promptly agreed. The establishment candidate, Nixon, hesitated. As the sitting vice president, he had more to lose in a debate, and Eisenhower urged him to decline. But Nixon did not want to give the appearance of fear, so he accepted. On September 26, 1960, the candidates met at WBBM, the CBS affiliate in Chicago, for the first of four debates. Key roles went to two members of the old Murrow team at CBS: newsman Howard K. Smith would moderate, and Don Hewitt would direct. Shortly before airtime, Nixon entered the studio from one side, Kennedy from the other. Hewitt stepped in between them and tried to break the ice, saying, “I assume you two gentlemen know each other.” Then Hewitt asked Kennedy if he wanted any makeup. The senator, tanned from campaigning in California, said no. Nixon, who was exhausted from a recent illness, felt he had to decline too (though his handlers did get him to apply some “Lazy-Shave,” a grooming product that was supposed to reduce the effect of Nixon’s five o’clock shadow). In the debate, both men proved to be quite skillful, commanding facts and arguments with ease. But Kennedy came off as the far more appealing candidate—at least to those who watched the performance on TV. Confident, calm, witty, he captured television and never let it go.

 

Although Jack (and Jackie) famously enjoyed favorable press attention, the general tide of editorial opinion in U.S. newspapers and magazines favored the publishers’ preferred cause, the Republican Party. In a pre-election critique, Liebling quoted an October 18, 1960, headline:

 U.S. DAILY NEWSPAPERS SUPPORT

NIXON 4 TO 1, SURVEY SHOWS

 And it was not just newspapers. At CBS, Bill Paley—now fabulously wealthy and heedless of any ethical issues raised by partisanship—was personally involved in the Nixon campaign, to which he donated $25,000, a sizable sum. It has often been said that Kennedy’s performance in the televised debates, in which he could speak to (and be seen by) the voters directly, put him over the top. Of course, in a close race—Kennedy won by about 100,000 votes out of some 69 million—everything matters, so it could also be said that Kennedy’s claims of a “missile gap” or the suspicious votes he got out of Chicago or any number of other factors proved crucial. But given the closeness of the race, it is likely that without the television debates, he probably would not have made it. In 1960 television had arrived just in time to help put Jack Kennedy in the White House.

 

Of all the ways the news media helped Kennedy, probably none mattered so much as what the media did not do. Throughout his presidency and for years afterward, reporters, photographers, and their editors turned a blind eye to some of the most reckless behavior ever engaged in by a sitting president. As Walter Cronkite explained the ethos: “In the sixties, the Washington press, like the media elsewhere, operated on a rule of thumb regarding the morals of our public men. The rule had it that, as long as his outside activities, alcoholic or sexual, did not interfere with or seriously endanger the discharge of his public duties, a man was entitled to his privacy.” The press corps extended to Kennedy all the traditional courtesies enjoyed by presidents, and then some. As with FDR’s polio, Kennedy’s crippling back pain (caused by Addison’s disease) was kept from the public, along with the regimen of pills and painkillers JFK took. While the stories that were published and broadcast drew attention to Kennedy’s heroism in the Navy or to his wife’s leopard-skin pillbox hats, the stories that were not published or broadcast kept the public in the dark about Kennedy’s many extramarital affairs.

 

The reporters who covered Kennedy were enablers of such behavior every bit as much as his doctors, his brother Robert, or the many presidential aides who all covered up for Kennedy. Such protection of the president may have stemmed in part from journalists’ professional aspirations, expressed in their disdain for what were known as “keyhole” reporters like Winchell, who published anything and everything. By the time a reporter makes it to covering the White House, he or she usually hopes to be focused on bigger issues than the president’s sex life. At the same time, the protection of the president may also have stemmed from reporters’ traditional concern about access, an issue that bedevils all reporters who cover powerful people, from presidents to corporate tycoons to home-run kings. The powerful person almost always controls who gets how close, and reporters are usually suckers for the feeling of being in the know that comes from getting close to powerful  newsmakers. For his part, Kennedy had an unerring sense of what reporters wanted—and what they were willing to overlook in order to get it.

 

During the Kennedy presidency, television news became more powerful than ever. In the years since the quiz show scandals of the 1950s, television executives had been atoning by lavishing resources on their news divisions. Television sets were in the vast majority of homes by 1960, and the audience for the TV networks dwarfed that of any newspaper and even the readership of the entire Time-Life empire. The media president, Jack Kennedy, also introduced live television coverage of presidential news conferences and proceeded to thrive in the new forum. Television carried more news than ever, to more people. . .

 

CBS News producer Don Hewitt (center) gestures while making arrangements for Kennedy and Nixon to speak in the first televised presidential debate, 1960.

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