My Reaction to the 1960 Kennedy/Nixon Debates (1/2)

A lot has been made about the differences in appearance between the two men in this debate. There’s the famous anecdote about how radio listeners liked Nixon more while TV viewers preferred Kennedy. And you can kind of see why in the very first frame with JFK sitting poised with his legs crossed and hands folded over his lap. Nixon is sitting with his legs awkwardly positioned, one hand on his lap and one on the armrest, he also fidgets around a bit while Kennedy remains still. Nixon turns his head to listen to the moderator while JFK does not. A lot of the body language analysis videos I saw during the ’16 Republican primary would often make note of how this makes one appear more submissive. They would show clips of Trump always facing forward no matter who he spoke to, while Jeb would constantly turn to face Trump, appearing as if he was deferring to him. It’s subtle and it sounds stupid, but there is indeed a science to these things. It’s subconscious, but it’s there. This is why I’ve said it over and over again—appearances matter. How you carry yourself, and the way people perceive you, goes into whether you’re charismatic or not. The most charismatic candidate ALWAYS wins. ALWAYS. For better or worse, humans are flawed irrational animals and that’s what decides elections. Don’t hate the players, hate the game.

I normally dislike references to overused, cliché politicians and quotes of the past, but I really appreciated how Kennedy tied in Lincoln’s “half slave, half free” line to refer to the geopolitical situation of the Cold War. I also found it effective how he frames the way to success as improving upon the lack of economic growth and limiting the waste going on in America. He stresses the need to feed the poor, the lack of scientific research going on, and things like that. Kennedy does mention lending a hand to other nations which ask for our help, but the emphasis is not on military might or interventionism as much as it is setting an example for the world by being the most free and productive nation we can. That’s what it ought to be about—then and now. The way we will prosper and guide the world is by developing the minds of our youth and taking care of our own, not wasting our resources bombing other countries. He even harps on race relations and the disadvantages of black Americans, foreshadowing his administration’s championing of Civil Rights. JFK also provides maybe the best, simplest rebuttal to the idea that “liberal” equals “more government” when he says what the Democrats really believe in is effective government. For myself, I agree with that kind of thinking. There are plenty of agencies which ought to be scrapped entirely or consolidated, budgets cut from certain programs or apparatuses, and that money re-purposed to helping average Americans. That’s what I want to see happen, and what I myself would want to do if I were President.

Notice how Kennedy repeats the phrase “I’m not satisfied” again and again to drill that thought into your head. As the opposition candidate to the then-current VP (who’s running to continue the status quo), this is brilliant strategy. It’s like a commercial or subliminal message, where the repetition forces you to internalize that idea. Again, these stupid little things matter a great deal, whether they ought to or not, so it’s wise to take advantage. As we’ve seen this past election and in so many others, exhaustive policy outlines does not win the day with Joe Schmo who can’t be bothered to keep up with current events. Branding, easily digestible soundbites, and personal magnetism does. That’s the world we live in for better or worse.

Nixon goes out of his way to assure us that he agrees with the spirit of what Kennedy said, but stresses that America is not “standing still” as JFK implied. Nixon tries to explain Kennedy’s talking point about how America’s production was down in ’58, by pointing out that the year in question was a recession, yet now in ’59 America is back on track. Then he defends the Eisenhower administration by comparing it favorably against Truman’s. He begins with broad strokes (“we built more schools!”) and then zones in on the progress of the average family’s wages. Nixon emphasizes that the Democrats’ plan will cost more, yet concedes that his own agenda will also spend more money than Eisenhower’s had. I think this undermines his own point, though I admire his honesty. Another weakness of Nixon’s opening statement is he spends too much time emphasizing that he respects Kennedy and they both want the same things. He eats up his own time talking up his own opponent and neutralizing his chances to criticize or bring Kennedy down. Yes, JFK spoke first, but that’s no reason why he should dominate the conversation. Again, that cedes the perception of dominance—Kennedy is effectively dictating the terms and direction of the debate, while Nixon is reacting and explaining. There’s an expression in political circles, that if you’re explaining, you’re losing, because you have lost the initiative and are following talking points dictated by your opposition. Nixon ought to have given perhaps a line or two addressing Kennedy at the beginning and then spoke his own agenda in his own words.

It’s also worth noting, however, that if the incumbent President is on their way out, it’s actually far easier to be the opposition candidate and pick apart any little shortcomings of the current administration than it is to be the follow-up candidate within the incumbent party, walking the line between promising beneficial changes to a fickle electorate yet having to defend the status quo at the same time. Being the incumbent (in a sense) as current VP means Nixon can’t stray too far from Eisenhower’s positions or else Kennedy could just ask “then why haven’t you done this already?” or say “so you have no faith in the head of your administration and his agenda?” This is especially so because part of Nixon’s strategy was to frame himself as an important adviser, one of the brains behind the current President. So if he wanted, Kennedy could frame Nixon’s disagreements with Eisenhower as his (Nixon’s) advice not being respected enough to be followed under the current term. It’s a tricky situation and part of the reason why the Presidency rarely remains in the same party’s hands for three consecutive terms in the modern era.

Another category where Nixon definitely comes off worse than Kennedy is in how his physical stance constantly shifts. While the camera is locked on to his head, it bobs around at a few points indicating movement. And when he stumbles on his words (which happens to every politician in almost every individual speech/debate and is not a big deal in and of itself) he closes his eyes and makes a big visual show of correcting himself. Kennedy, in contrast, (who also stumbled at one point) just said the correct word he had meant to originally and then moved on without incident. It was a common, insignificant error not even worth mentioning by both men, but the point is Nixon called attention to it and Kennedy did not. It’s another small but important difference in their performances, and why Nixon must have come off as less confident or prepared than his opponent, and was therefore considered the loser.

Then the debate moves into taking questions from the panel. We see the awkwardness of this first format shift when Kennedy tries to answer while seated, and then for no reason at all, the moderator directs him to stand at the podium. Either have them stand at podiums the whole time (like most modern debates) or let them answer sitting. Why arbitrarily switch it up halfway through for no discernible reason–just let them sit if you’ve already got them in chairs. Fortunately this small wrinkle in the process would be ironed over in all future debates.

An interesting question arises when the correspondent brings up the unusual relationship with farmers and the government, particularly why they’re paid to not produce certain crops or why the government steps in to buy any surpluses. As the correspondent points out, it is not this way with businesses and factories. Kennedy explains that agriculture is different from factories because it’s difficult for them to control their own market. They only have a certain amount of time to produce their food. They all begin planting and buying livestock at the same time, so it’s hard for them to gauge the demands and supply of the market and react accordingly. And if they were to vastly overproduce or underproduce certain crops, there would be complete chaos. He specifically points to what happened in the ’20s when there were more lax controls on agriculture and the fallout that followed. This was an interesting topic I’ve never seen addressed elsewhere, and Kennedy’s explanation was something I never considered, yet after hearing it I think he makes complete sense. It’s this kind of genuine policy discussion, allowing us laypeople to learn about the nitty gritties of how government really works, which is what the debates ought to be about. This is one of few times in all of the debates I’ve seen where I felt that way, which is inexcusable and sad when you get right down to it.

ASIDE: Sadly, especially recently, presidential debates have become a lot more personal and geared towards tearing down the other person than it is this examination of genuine policy. I’m not just referring to Trump either. All debates from at least the late ’80s onward are about slinging labels and insults. It says a lot, and non of it flattering, about our media where this is encouraged by the format and coverage. We need to demand better.

I actually feel bad for Nixon in the next question when the panelist brings up Eisenhower’s infamous dig at his (Nixon’s) expense. When asked what specifically Nixon had done to help the administration’s policy-making, Eisenhower stated “give me a week and I’ll think of something.” My dad, who reads a lot about politics and Nixon in particular, thinks that Ike said that because he knew Nixon wanted the Presidency too badly and sought to frustrate his efforts as a result. After all, it’s a common belief that those who don’t want the office but take it out of a feeling of selfless responsibility tend to have the right motivations and therefore make the best leaders. I know Ike was not in the best health during the second term, so maybe that’s another reason–he honestly just couldn’t remember at the time. Maybe he honestly had a mental blank, or thought that talking up someone else’s candidacy was beneath a sitting president. Anyway, Nixon is then forced to defend and explain his own record, and as I mentioned earlier “when you’re explaining, you’re losing.” Nixon even admits that sometimes his advice is ignored, which is true of any President-VP relationship, but to the average Joe listening to this, it undermines Nixon’s supposed role as a great adviser. Nixon himself makes it sound like he puts his ideas out there unsolicited and more often than not, is ignored. In reality, I have no doubt Nixon was a significant consultant to Eisenhower and even in some ways the true power behind the throne so to speak. But he doesn’t do himself many favors with this answer.

At one point, Kennedy is challenged on his assertion that he will be able to spearhead some bills through in Congress as President. The correspondent wonders why the Democrats couldn’t have just passed these bills the past August. Kennedy cites, among other issues, Eisenhower’s power to veto since all he would need to sustain his veto is “one third plus one” in Congress. Nixon, in what I consider his best answer/rebuttal of the whole debate, states that if the Democrats really cared about those bills they ought to try to pass them anyway. Then let Eisenhower veto them (and maybe he won’t anyway) and let him be forced to explain that veto to the American people. As Nixon states, if the American people support these actions, it would make sense then for the Democrats to try to force the issue and make the Republicans defend their lack of support. This was a great counter-punch by Nixon, and I think the same principle applies to the Democrats of today. It feels like they look for excuses not to do things. They roll over and submit to even the mere threat of Republican opposition. They don’t have the guts to throw everything they’ve got at the Republicans as the GOP does to them. It’s frustrating for me and other liberals to watch, and it undermines the support they might have if they just stood up for their supposed beliefs. It’s interesting to see this phenomenon apparently has roots as far back as the Kennedy years, when Liberalism was the dominant ideology in national politics.

Where Nixon oversteps his bounds a bit, and gives Kennedy wiggle room, is when he calls the proposed bills “extreme.” This allows Kennedy to spend his time answering by defending the bills and their necessity, rather than being forced to defend his party’s lack of action or conviction. The camera cuts to Nixon squirming and visibly uncomfortable as he’s forced to listen in silence. He neutralized his own attack against Kennedy by going too far, and he knows it. This is another great lesson too–if you have a good attack or criticism, sometimes it’s better to leave it alone after the blow has landed and stop talking. Trying to get in as many digs as possible allows your opponent the ability to focus on the one thing they can answer, while ignoring the points they cannot defend. Again, this is something I saw a lot of the candidates including Hillary fail at against Trump in 2016–they threw too much dirt at him to where it actually became counter-intuitive and no one hit was able to stick.

I usually don’t pick winners when analyzing debates, unless it’s such a clear lopsided performance that it cannot be ignored. That said…Kennedy absolutely won, hands down. And not even just in the “he looked better, but Nixon made better points” qualifier that’s become the popular narrative about this debate. In fact, I’d say Kennedy made better points as well as had more poise. Nixon did not do a bad job necessarily, and I think it’s worth noting that he had just gotten out of the hospital at this time in the campaign. Nixon would do very well against other opponents, and I’m deeply disappointed there were not debates held in ’68 and ’72 for largely this reason. Kennedy was just in a class all his own as far as oration and gravitas go, similar to Reagan, Obama and Bill Clinton. He has a compelling stage presence and a magnetic swagger that few do, and used it to full effect here. Nixon is a great orator in his own right (the famous Checkers speech alone is proof of this), and the closeness of this election is a testament to his own merits and charisma, but Kennedy was the kind of once in a generation candidate who was just unbeatable.

I did not at any time notice Nixon sweating, nor did I see any five o’ clock shadow as is commonly cited with regard to this debate as the reasons he lost. I don’t know if this happens in another debate of the ’60 cycle, or is an over simplified exaggeration which passed into popular lore. Either way, Nixon failed to dominate largely for similar reasons that are more nuanced, so I see why that “sweaty bearded man” narrative caught on–it’s just easier to explain than pointing out all the little details as I have here. In terms of rhetoric, Nixon spent far too much time talking up his own opponent and emphasizing how they wanted the same things. This fact ought to go without saying, and it ate up too much of his speaking time. Plus, it made it seem like Nixon was desperate to be like Kennedy rather than dictating his own agenda. JFK was attacking the status quo while Nixon was almost sucking up to the guy ripping apart his (Nixon’s) own administration. In reality Nixon was being honest and a good sport, but subconsciously this made him seem almost submissive to his challenger, as far as viewers are concerned. Since Presidential elections are literally about selecting our tribe/nation’s “alpha (fe)male” it’s essential to be perceived as the stronger, more domineering presence. It’s stupid and primitive, but that’s how our ape-brains are wired.

1 Comment

  1. Good analysis of aspects of this debate not covered in your first post about it. Interesting that radio listeners favored Nixon while TV watchers favored Kennedy. Says lots about importance of physical appearance and demeaner in political choices. Another great job by Cassie!

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