Political Ruminations and the 1960 Presidential Debates

by Janis Cortese

The best way I've found to describe my political leanings is to say that I'm a pro-gun liberal. Extending civil rights is the most important thing that we can do as inheritors of the government that the founding fathers gave us. It's the responsibility of each citizen in our nation to do what we can to actually create the nation that the FF's designed. It's an asymptotic process; we're always getting closer to the ideal that's outlined in the Constitution -- seems like we fall short of it a lot, though.

And lately, given that the most evil creation in the history of government has apparently won both the executive and legislative branches of the government via a judicial coup d'etat, thus poisoning all three branches, I'm feeling like I finally want to check the "Democrat" box on my voting card instead of "decline to state," which is what I've been so far. I'm feeling pissy and dangerous, and am doing a lot of thinking about Democratic presidents, Republican perfidy, and the way things have come down to us all over the years.

(Perfidy too strong a word, you say? Bullshit, I say in return. Abraham Lincoln may have started the party, but it's taken a nosedive since then, that's for sure. He must have been the last Republican the world has even known who made headway in a civil rights matter, at least, and certainly the last one to give a flying fuck about the Constitution.)

And given that the last set of debates struck me as rhetorical cotton candy (no substance, less appeal), I started thinking of the first televised debates. Given that that segued nicely into a consideration of one of the most noteworthy Democratic presidents in recent times, well, it was natural that I inflict my thoughts about them all on you.

Myth #1: Kennedy's Looks Won Him The Presidency

There's lots of myths circulating about those debates -- the most tenacious of which is wrapped around a kernel of truth. (And BTW --if you haven't seen the damned things, go watch them. Then come back and read this. Better yet, listen, then watch. Until then, shut up until you've formed a decent opinion.) This is of course the part truth-part myth that Kennedy won the debates because he looked better than Nixon. Oversimplification.

I'm not saying that looks don't matter. As a young woman who hits society's definition of "attractive," not only do I know that looks matter, but I can tell you precisely how far they will get you, to the millimeter. But looks are, fundamentally, a card trick. A gimmick. They will hold your audience's attention -- the first time. Next time they see you, they want a new trick. I'm not necessarily saying that they want to see substance under the looks; they just want a new gimmick. People get bored quickly, especially with television, and it takes about nine seconds for the notorious Short Attention Span of the average TV watcher to get engrained into their brain. Not only that, but there are a multitude of ways in which looks hurt that no one in the world is willing to discuss or even entertain. Often, people don't want substance beneath looks. A thesis on high philosophy coming out of the mouth of a heartthrob often falls on deaf ears, no matter how brilliant.

So, did the fact that Kennedy was better looking than Nixon help him? For the first debate, yes. After that, it was old news -- and not a very high bar to get over, frankly. Lots of men are better looking than Richard Nixon.

Something that gets forgotten is that not only did Kennedy look better than Nixon, but Nixon looked absolutely thrashed -- mostly because he was absolutely thrashed. He had just come out of the hospital, after a stay that left him haggard, exhausted, and 30lbs thinner. He was ashen. He shouldn't have been debating. He was campaigning right up until the debates themselves to make up for lost time due to his illness (a knee infection) whereas Kennedy had rested up and taken time to study the debate topics.

So if Kennedy looked fit and rested, and Nixon looked haggard, it was because Kennedy was fit and rested, and Nixon was haggard. And that showed in their performances as well as their faces.

Myth #2: The Radio Audience was Unbiased

Another myth has grown out of the fact that many radio listeners thought that Nixon won, whereas the TV audience thought Kennedy won. The implication of this, never stated but always there, is that the radio audience was unbiased.

They weren't. If you were going to hire one of them to read the news for you on a radio news show, which one would you bring on board? Nixon's voice was deeper, resonant, and without a trace of a regional accent, the classic newscaster's voice. Kennedy's nasal Cape Cod accent was lodged so far into his sinuses that it would have taken a drain snake to get it out. The fact that the radio audience considered that Nixon won has been trotted out over and over to imply that Nixon was the one who really won; Kennedy only looked like he won. The first debate has been called by CBS News "The Night That Television Ate Politics."

I'm not saying that the looks factor wasn't more important than the voice factor. We are a visual species, and the television audience both saw and heard -- and was more influenced by what they saw. However, the belief that Nixon really won -- shored up by the tacit assumption that the radio audience was unbiased -- is plain wrong. Had radio been the only medium for that debate, Kennedy would have had to overcome a serious bias.

What The Analysis Has Lacked For The Past 40 Years, and Why

Why does this fact get lost? Why does no one consider the bias inherent in the radio audience? Simple -- because television commentators are unfailingly the people who analyze the debate itself and its fallout. They are happy to claim that their own medium is 100% of the analysis -- and the effect of Nixon's deeper voice on radio gets short shrift. Who gives a damn about radio nowdays? A pretty face won't play on FM with a harsh or irritating voice; apparently the analysts that underline Kennedy's victory are ignorant of the fact that his voice has been made fun of for a good, solid 40 years since his election. (Haven't those guys ever seen "The Simpsons?")

And now you'll have to excuse me while I leap merrily into the realm of pop psychology, because I believe there is another reason why today's political commentators emphasize Kennedy's looks over almost everything else. I call it the "Butt-Slapping Syndrome."

Men are practically forbidden from touching one another, even just a friendly hug. I've seen men sharing beds in a pinch, in a crowded hotel room or whatnot. They practically hang off the outside edges of the mattress to avoid coming into proximity with one another, much less contact. And yet, like all monkeyfolk primates, we like physical contact. It's warm, reassuring.

So when men have the excuse to be in contact with one another, they absolutely adore it. Tackle football in the grass with their buddies? It's the only time they get to scream, yell and cheer happily, express themselves, and be laughing and smooshed up against a friend like any happy little monkey would like to be.

And they grab each other's butts. It's not necessarily sexual, just a release of the tension that comes from never being able to even touch one another. In a world where a man can employ the "gay panic" defense in court to kill another man who comes on to him much less grabs his ass, the freedom to let one's hair down and just be touchy-feely with a pal and still retain your sexual identity must be a blessed release.

Men are also not permitted to notice what other men look like, ever. A straight woman can look over another straight woman and practically analyze her attractions on the molecular level. God knows we did it to Jackie for four decades. Men, though? They don't dare -- either because they are afraid of being labelled as gay, or because they are afraid of discovering that they are. Not that most men are -- no matter how entrenchedly heterosexual, a man will be jumpy about admiring another man too much.

So, when given an opportunity to analyze another man's looks with the safe excuse of appearing sober and legitimate at the same time, these middle-aged, (most likely) heterosexual men are overcompensating. They don't only state the simple, obvious fact that one man is of necessity going to look better than another and that this will impact their appeal in a visual medium.

They harp on it. They analyze it repeatedly. They chalk up the election results themselves to it. They go over it for 40 years running in obsessive, hyperbolic detail, in the process transforming a charismatic and moderately good-looking man into the most celestial-looking creature of the 20th century, a "matinee idol" in the words of "60 Minutes" producer Don Hewitt who can't, it seems, stop talking about John Kennedy's looks even for one second, also dubbing him "Lockinvar - he's maybe the most handsome man that ever ran for office in America."

Guys, he was a good-looking man. Brad Pitt he wasn't. Here, let me get you a stepladder so you can climb down from the inappropriate heights of hyperbole that you've scaled before you all get nosebleeds. Don Hewitt should realize that just because his personal universe exploded the first time he found another man physically attractive, it does not automatically follow that the Earth also shifted off its axis at the same moment.

When Did Television Really Eat Politics?

The dubbing of that first debate as "The Night Television Ate Politics" also works well for the television analysts because it frees them from the responsibility they themselves have for the modern engulfment of politics into the realm of infotainment. Don Hewitt stated that "that was the night politics went to hell in America."

Really? Not when Nixon made his "Checkers" speech? Not when the media circled around the ever-entertaining Joe McCarthy and shone their ego-gratifying spotlight on him, licking their lips for ratings while his flesh-tearing juggernaut crushed hundreds of lives? The film footage, shown over and over until we all got sick of it, of Gerald Ford taking a header down a flight of stairs? The way they smashed us in the face over and over and over for years with the most trivial and inconsequential details of a quite average tale of adultery, and in the process contributed enormously to the near-destruction of the career of a damned good public servant? How much of that did TV journalists create themselves? How much of that are they responsible for? After decades of declining decency and professionalism from all corners of television "journalism," and I use the word loosely, starting with their love affair with the ratings-grabber McCarthy, Hewitt has the nerve to claim that the blame for the whole putrescent mess lies with John Kennedy's looks? Oh, poor Don Hewitt and his comrades in the biz -- they're entirely faultless. They aren't to blame for performing their jobs so shockingly poorly -- it's all the fault of the dark suit Kennedy wore.

Who the hell are you kidding?

"It wasn't our fault politics has been turned into infotainment," says the TV Producer. "It wasn't our fault we crushed the Paula Jones trial and Monica Lewinsky's face down viewers' throats repeatedly despite their vast constantly expressed disinterest in it! It wasn't our fault we turned political reporting into "The Jerry Springer Show!" Not our fault that we've made a fringe lunatic commentator like Rush Limbaugh actually appear legitimate! Not our fault that we failed to ask any decent questions of either Bush or Gore and left the substantive questioning of candidates to stand-up comics on late night talk shows! Not our fault!"

It's John Kennedy's fault! He did it! It's all his fault! He's the one to blame, not us!

Anything else you want to blame your crappy, sensationalist job performance on? The misalignment of the planets? The tides?

The process by which television ate politics has been a slow, ugly slide down a hill of refuse for years. And you've all contributed. Every damned one of you who covered up for John McCain when he said that Chelsea Clinton was ugly because Janet Reno is her father -- and then showed us pictures of a rumpled blue dress over an extreme closeup of the word "cigar" every goddamned night on the news for over a year. Every one of you who ignored legislative issues like the passage of the "Family Medical Leave Act" and who invited Rush Limbaugh to comment on the Paula Jones Scandal. And every one of you who shone the ego-gratifying spotlight on Joe McCarthy's witchhunt all those years ago. You're all to blame. Not John Kennedy. Take some damned responsibility. Television ate politics because it opened its maw and bared its fangs and savaged it, not because it was handed politics on a plate by the photogeneity of one mere man.

Copyright © 2001 by Janis Cortese

06/03/07 at 14:26