The vice and the TV star
On the 8th of November, 1960, John Fitzgerald Kennedy is elected the 35th President of the United States of America. But for many , the Democratic candidate had won the election more than a month before. Kennedy and Nixon go head to head in the first Presidential debate in American television History: a turning point for political communication and the our way of thinking about politics
On September 26th of 1960, more than 70 million north-Americans turned on the television to watch the first presidential debate to be aired in the small screen. On one side, the republican candidate, Richard Nixon, for eight years in the country’s vice-presidency. On the other, the democrat John F. Kennedy, a young and catholic senator from Massachusetts.
Nixon arrived to the CBS studios as the presumed future President, with the polls disclosed in the previous month on his favor. The debate changed everything. Still recovering from a hospital stay, vice-president refused to wear make-up and appeared in the screens with a tired and fading appearance. His gray suits mixed with the background, and his complexion was pale, his forehead shined with sweat; his discomfort became evident to the millions of north-Americans that watched the debate.
On the opposition pulpit, Kennedy had the appearance of a winner. Young, tanned, athletic, the senator charmed the viewers with a confident and relaxed look. The fact he faced the cameras directly when answering the questions, instead of looking to the journalists who asked them, such as Nixon did, made the viewers to perceived him as someone who was speaking honestly to them and answering the questions in a direct and honest way.
The result wasn’t consensual. The north-American public that watched the debate from television gave the victory to Kennedy; whom followed it through the radio considered that Nixon was better. But, in 1960, listeners were in clear minority: 88 percent of the north-American homes had TV.
The candidates faced again in front of the camera three times more. The television confrontations between Kennedy and Nixon not only made history in north-American politics, but were also innovative in audiovisual communication. The third debate marked the first use of the split screen technology; even though they both seemed to be in the same room; Nixon was in Los Angeles and Kennedy was in New York.
In the debates that followed, Nixon realized the importance of image and TV language. However, the audience of the following television duels was significantly lower. The lesson was remained for the rest of his life. Two years after, Nixon wrote his books “Six Crises”: “I should have remembered that ‘a picture is worth a thousand words’”.
From Massachusets politics to the cover of Time
The media attention of which Kennedy was a target hadn’t started with the Presidential candidacy. From the beginning of his political career, the senator carefully cultivated his image and his relationship with the media.
Member of one of the most influent and prominent families in the country, Kennedy supported himself in the image of harmony at home for the creation of his public image and for his political rise. His marriage to Jacqueline Bouvier, in 1953, was under an intense media coverage. Months before, the couple had appeared in the cover of the prestigious Time magazine and their names were a usual presence in the society pages of the north-American press.
His wife became an integral part of his presidential campaign: Jacqueline showed her public support to her husband and even starred in electoral ads. During her pregnancy, under medical advice, she seized to accompany JFK in his trips. Fearing the effect that her absence would have in the campaign, Jacqueline was advised to write a daily column that appealed to the Feminine vote. Thus appeared “Campaign Wife”, a column published in newspapers throughout the country.
While Nixon focused on visiting the total of north-American states, Kennedy already perceived the power of television, at the time a media on the rise, and didn’t abstain from using the new means in his campaign. The democrat candidate participated in several TV shows and gathered the support of stars like Frank Sinatra, who sang his campaign song.
The golden opportunity for Kennedy’s communication team appeared in the end of a press conference of President Eisenhower. The north-American leader was questioned about the contributions of the then vice-President Nixon for his presidency. “If you give me a week, I might think of one”, he answered.
Eisenhower would end up stating that the quote was a commentary about his fatigue and not about the competency (or lack of it) of his vice-President. But it was too late.
The Democrats used the sentence in a TV ad. “President Eisenhower could not remember, but the voters will remember”. Along with Kennedy’s rise in the north-American political system, the frontier between the politician and the media star faded.
The President of a new era
The moment of decision arrived in November of 1960. After months of campaign, four debates and million spectators avidly following the television duels, the north-Americans went to the ballot boxes to choose the new President. Before midnight The New York Times published the headline “Kennedy Elected President”.
Nixon was the first candidate in the History of American electoral presidential campaigns to lose an election despite having the majority of States on his side. Kennedy, then aged 43, was the youngest president elected in the History of the United States.
Polls done by the time of the elections revealed that more than half of the electors had been influenced by the television debates, with six percent even considering it to be the decisive factor. Only four days after having been elected, also Kennedy recognized the role of the new media in his victory: "It was the TV more than anything else that turned the tide".
The debate became the mark in the History of North-American policy, not only because it contributed for Kennedy’s unexpected victory, but also because it marked the beginning of an era in which television dominated the electoral process. A paradigm that social media came to shake.