Nearly 60 years ago, the first significant televised debate between two would-be leaders of a major Western democracy took place. John F Kennedy, then just 43 years of age, was young, far from dumb and full of comely charms. Sitting Veep (not his Sioux name, that wasn’t considered a vote winner then) Richard Nixon, a creaking 47 and visibly convalescing from his recent hospitalisation, was hoping to succeed his boss, the popular Dwight Eisenhower, into the WHOO* (*White House Oval Office, but also what you shout when you win.)
The entire debate, like the rest of recorded history, is available to watch on YouTube and is instructive in all kinds of ways. Many regard it as the moment that TV became the final arbiter in politics. When, as Neil Postman puts it in Amusing Ourselves to Death, we moved from the Typographical Age to the Age of Show Business.
Looking at it today it is hard to see it in that light. It seems hesitant and apologetic, and still rather bookish. Like most Sixties’ current affairs programming, from Firing Line to Blue Peter, one is struck by the simplicity of the sets, the static camera work, and the almost offensive levels of decorum shown by the participants. One might think the two would-be POTUSES (POTI? PsOTUS?) … one might think they were joint participants in a school prize giving, for all the acrimony visible.
Kennedy makes no jibes about Nixon’s conk. Not once does Nixon, for his part, take advantage of Kennedy’s tantalising middle initial. Neither man references the size of the other’s package, hints that the other is on the nursery slopes of dementia or accuses him of harbouring prejudice against any specific ethno-religious group (there was really only one that mattered, to be fair — Christian Americans — although JFK’s Catholicism would come under scrutiny in due course).
Nevertheless, the criteria on which their respective performances were judged in these debates notoriously set the tone for the coming decades. Kennedy wowed the electorate as much with his evident vigour and hamster-cheeked good looks as his grasp of the challenges facing America. Nixon, on the other hand, was only recently out of hospital. A knee injury sustained while campaigning had become infected — Nixon was a septic Sceptic. He looked wan, and Kennedy won — one nil.
There were four debates in all; but it remains the first that is legendary for the unfortunate Nixon, whose palour, sweatiness and even, it is said, poor choice of suit colour — it blended in with the background — all diminished him in the eyes of viewers. Remarkably, it is claimed that radio listeners, unable to see his furtive glances and glistening upper lip, believed that Nixon had won. Though that might easily reflect the demographic that chose to absorb the arguments through the more conservative medium to begin with.
Kennedy of course went on to win the race too, decisively in terms of the electoral college, which is what counts, though by a very narrow squeak in the popular vote — an interesting reverse of the divergence facing Republican and Democrat candidates today. Camelot lasted barely three years, before he was gunned down on November 22, 1963, leaving Lyndon B Johnson, who stepped up to steer the USA through its various mid-Sixties convulsions — from Civil Rights to the Vietnam War. Be careful what you wish for.
Nixon meanwhile became well aware of the power and the pitfalls of TV campaigning from then on, and swiftly mastered the art. He eventually won the election of 1968, and was re-elected in 1972, only to leave the office less than two years later under the most ignominious circumstances of any Presidential departure in History, though arguably preferable to those of Kennedy. One might say of both men, be careful what you wish for.
Ever since then, TV audiences have looked to TV to provide then with a short cut, a clue to the character of the candidate they are faced with that will enable them to confidently back or decisively reject them without having to do all that boring manifesto stuff. Like professional poker players, they know the real game is never where your gaze is being directed. They hope for a tell. A twitch, a guilty start, a darting eye. And human nature being what it is, whatever they are really hoping to see, they will.
Reporting on the TV debates and interviews has focused almost entirely on what one might call the Nixonian details. Corbyn’s glasses, slightly askew on one occasion. Was Johnson more or less stammering than usual, when challenged over his lifetime record of mendacity and half-truth? Did the BBC really edit out derisive laughter from his interview? Did Channel 4 deliberately mishear Boris Johnson as saying that “immigrants of colour” were to be welcomed but only under democratic control?
I have seen perhaps two or three serious attempts by well-informed journalists to analyse and cost the manifesto promises of the parties, in language ordinary people might understand, for every hundred excited jabberings about who has got the wind in their sales, or looked exhausted, defeated, or fat.
For my money, however, the most telling interview was a BBC exclusive with a young woman who was asked what issues she would be considering before deciding how to vote. She said that she felt she had not been properly informed of the issues — passive voice — and had not been adequately educated, and that consequently she tended to just vote the way her friends did. Their collective vote was it seemed a sort of emergent phenomenon, of the kind familiar to anyone who has attended a séance.
Now, as I always emphasise when I am trying to establish a rapport with young people, perhaps to discover who left seven wet towels on the bathroom floor, the main thing I look for is openness and candour. We can make no progress without these.
And tempting though it is to roll our eyes, this woman is being admirably honest and self aware. To a greater or lesser extent this is how millions of people decide.
Many develop a tribal loyalty to their first love and never re-examine the premises. They respond to peer-group consensus, however ill-informed, they think it is someone else’s fault that they are not better informed, and they wouldn’t read a manifesto in the loo while there are the backs of shampoo bottles to reach for. And it is perhaps worrying that many base these initial judgements on unexamined groupthink.
To the extent that they can be persuaded to switch tracks, they are strongly influenced by random but vivid visual stimuli of the kind that made 1960 famous. Unplanned, unscripted events that convince them they have accessed some fundamental, revealed truth about the character of the individuals they are being asked to vote for, an insight that will enable them to decide without having to grasp the implications of anyone’s fiscal or immigration policy. This is sometimes known as the availability heuristic.
Our would-be leaders are now trained to suppress all such revealing traits, of course. And while these things provide a brief flare in the darkness they rarely decide elections. The bacon sandwich may have done for Ed Miliband, but the young woman in the clip will not have found her prior beliefs challenged too hard by the past few week’s coverage. She will still trust her better informed friend, and will by now I suspect be familiar with that comfortable feeling of being able to fit anything that happens into her established world view, however second-hand and arbitrary she knows it to be.