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

My thoughts on the other 3 Kennedy-Nixon Debates from 1960, the first General Election Debates in US history. None of these are anywhere near as fascinating as the first. The first debate of this cycle is the perfect example of what to do and what not to do at a televised debate. However, Nixon’s performances vastly improved as time went on, and the topic unfortunately remained foreign policy (read: Communist bashing) after the first. There’s not nearly as much to analyze.

Debate 2

There are no opening statements, just straight into panel questions. We begin with foreign policy and pointing fingers between which party/administration “lost” China and Cuba to the Communists. Especially in hindsight, I find this kind of discussion ridiculous, personally. As if it’s America’s place to dictate what form of economy other sovereign countries decide to implement, or that we weren’t total hypocrites whining about Cuba while we were supporting regimes contrary to the Soviets on their own doorstep. I understand how at the time it must have been scary seeing various countries choose the ways of our self-appointed adversary, but I think this mindset that US politicians seemed to have that we were entitled to dictate the framework of their government to them is equally appalling. With Cuba, Iran, ISIS and so many other hostile areas, we created the problem ourselves by installing US-friendly dictators who pushed their people too far to the point they revolted. We’ve caused so many troubles for ourselves and people in other nations with that interventionist, controlling mentality that it’s not even funny, and as a result we ought to look back on these Cold War/neocon days with shame.

Where things get more interesting to me is when the candidates’ are directly asked to give their position on Civil Rights, since apparently both men were trying to play to both camps depending on which side of the Mason-Dixon they were campaigning. Nixon focuses on employment and government assistance to districts which choose to integrate their schools. He also wants to pressure businesses to serve black people. Kennedy attacks Nixon for not doing enough, and points out that some 10% of blacks are illiterate as opposed to 2% of whites, as well as how 60-70 % of black kids never finish high school. But Kennedy doesn’t really go into specifics about what he will do himself. He just says the President can do a lot, that he will as President, mentions housing and kinda leaves it at that. Gotta admit I’m surprised Nixon gave a more detailed answer to this question considering the JFK-LBJ administration passed Civil Rights while Nixon would start the War on Drugs to disenfranchise black people. I suppose it makes sense when you consider that Civil Rights was really Bobby Kennedy’s pet project (according to what I’ve read) and I suspect Nixon’s harsh drug policy was based on silencing political opposition rather than genuine racism (which is still horrible and worthy of condemnation.)

I gotta say, it’s pretty rich in the next segment hearing Kennedy call the Communists overly materialistic. One can call Communism a lot of things—idealistic to a fault, naive, misguided, impossible*—but materialism, greed and toxic consumerism are purely vices of the Capitalists. On Nixon’s part, it’s fascinating and refreshing to see a Republican openly admit he might have to raise taxes and that party labels don’t matter. We only had to go back almost 60 years to see it! How far they’ve fallen since, where their sole appeal is lower taxes (and religion) and all they care about in debates is labeling their opponent “the most liberal Senator/Governor in history” regardless of whether it’s true, and without specifying why “liberal” ought to be considered so derogatory.

*ASIDE: Of course, when I’m describing the flaws of communism here, I’m using the actual definition laid down by Marx–a stateless, classless, moneyless society where goods and services are provided “from each according to his ability to each according to his need.” If we’re going to factor in the popular conception of communism (really Leninism) then I could list exponentially more, and harsher, flaws of the ideology and its adherents.

Sorry I don’t have much to say about this one. Nixon has obviously improved his technique a lot since the first outing so there isn’t much of a clear cut distinction between either one. There’s less to analyze and comment on because of it, and most of the issues discussed are typical Cold War chest beating which doesn’t interest me, and which they seem to be mostly on the same page with anyway.

Debate 3

This is pretty disappointing right off the bat because the two men aren’t even sharing the same stage. I think that takes away a lot of the fun and interpersonal dynamics of a debate when you remove that face to face aspect. How the two carry themselves in each other’s presence can and often does factor into their performance in significant ways. But whatever, just a preference of mine.

I think Nixon’s defense against Kennedy’s “trigger happy” attack is very good—he points out how no Republican president up to that point in the 20th century had led us into war, while the Democrats had done so 3 times already. It’s also very reminiscent of Trump (in a good way—this was one of Trump’s best positions) when Nixon refuses to state what course of action he would take if China invaded a sovereign nation, and whether he would authorize nukes. The fact that these panelists are even asking about the use of nukes so nonchalantly shows how far we have come since then to where nuclear arms are nigh unthinkable now.

Then the debate goes on for nearly 20 more minutes arguing about whether to defend Formosa and all these other places against Communist aggression, and whether we’re obligated to defend such and such place under our existing treaties and I honestly lost track because frankly I don’t care. That may sound irresponsible coming from a concerned citizen and amateur political analyst but my position on all this foreign policy nonsense is that the less of it the better. We can’t be isolationist in a modern technological, inter-connected world, but neither should we be the world police force either. These ridiculously entangled alliance-based responsibilities just shows that Washington was right and following this course of action is just leading us to endless war from which we have bankrupted ourselves. When you’re literally spending more money on foreigners than domestic citizens while our bridges crumble and cities still don’t have clean drinking water, your priorities are insanely out of whack. Especially so when looking at the Cold War, I wish someone would have stepped back and recognized we were invading half the world in defense of an economic model. How ridiculous is it of us to presume to tell Cuba. China, whoever, how to organize their socio-economic structure? Anyway, this is why I can’t be asked to care with regards to our imperialist foreign policy.

Then when we finally switch to domestic issues, it’s a BS question where the panelist wants JFK to apologize for, or else throw his hat in with some apparent insult Truman leveled against the Eisenhower administration. JFK basically just says “I’m not Truman, I don’t control what he says, this isn’t my problem” which was a good answer I would’ve thrown out too, but it’s also the first I’ve ever seen him look genuinely uncomfortable. In fact, this one moment is the perfect counterpoint to the calm, cool, “alpha” JFK of debate 1. He even bows his head in defensiveness and perhaps even shame after answering. It’s funny how Nixon’s rebuttal is essentially the same “the children are watching! Think about the children!” virtue-signaling that Hillary Clinton unsuccessfully employed against Donald Trump.

What’s even more hilarious (or tragic depending on your slant,) is when Nixon goes on a big spiel about how Eisenhower restored dignity to the Presidency and how he (Nixon) hopes that he might uphold that standard of morality and decency in office. This is one of the great perks of watching old political material with the benefit of hindsight—you get to see these great moments of delicious irony which, if they were written in a fictional story, would come across as foreshadowing that’s too heavy handed to be believable. Even ignoring Nixon’s own ultimate legacy, it’s ironic to think that Donald Trump, the new standard bearer of Nixon’s party, is exactly the opposite of everything he describes here.

Then we get back into the insufferable chest beating about stopping communists, not surrendering an inch to China or Russia, how the other candidate is “too soft” on communism, and all that obnoxious proto-neocon crap I can’t stand. It’s both sad and interesting how, even as far back as the ’50s, both parties were exactly the same in nearly all ways which mattered. Even when the subject turns to the KKK, Nixon uses the opportunity to sneak in a dig about how Communism is “the enemy of all religions.” When we come to a topic I’m very much interested in (labor unions) Nixon dodges giving a complete answer because apparently he wants to make a full speech about it (in advance of the final debate so he can be asked further). However, when Nixon talks about “weapons” of the President against strikes, and brags about there being less strikes during Eisenhower’s administration, it doesn’t fill me with hope that he’s in favor of unions. Kennedy talks about incentivizing labor and business to work it out among themselves without government intervention, which I can agree with, and feel should be the truly conservative position.* But he wants to accomplish this by giving the President a variety of new powers in arbitrating conflicts between unions and corporations, which seems a bit contradictory to that principle of keeping government out of things.

*ASIDE: Republicans are not actually pro-small government or state government like they claim to be. This is a perfect example, where if they really believed in smaller government they ought to leave the businesses and unions to it, but instead they support coming down hard against unions which is exactly the activist government they’re supposed to stand against. Campaigning against women’s right to choose, expanding the military adventurism and intelligence agencies are other examples. Similarly, the early pushback against state legalization of weed is another hypocrisy. Both parties as they currently exist want bigger government, just in support of their own preferred causes.

Later on, when talking about economic growth of the nation, Nixon expounds about how he is never satisfied with the growth we have and always wants to do better. I disagree with this kind of rhetoric because infinite growth in inherently unsustainable and not even necessarily a good thing even if it were. I believe this kind of outlook has gotten us in a whole lot of trouble down the line. However where Nixon wins me over again is when he pivots to Civil Rights and states that the issue with keeping black people down is not just the morality of it but also how it impacts the potential growth of the nation as a whole. It’s this kind of expert framing of a situation which I wish we saw more of on the Left. Merely calling people racists and “deplorables” like that isn’t helpful—for better or worse, sometimes you need to frame the situation in a way that makes those unaffected feel like they have skin in the game too. That said, this makes Nixon’s anti-black policies a decade later (the Southern Strategy, the War on Drugs) that much more sinister since he knew exactly how much he was harming not just the black community but the nation as a whole, and he did it anyway to boost his own party’s long term electoral prospects.

And that’s about all that really caught my attention in this third outing. My overall take is that once again, Nixon did far, far better here (as in #2) than in the first debate. It’s actually a great shame that the only debate from this cycle anyone knows about and analyzes is the first one. It’s clear now that Nixon’s performance there was greatly impacted by his recent hospital stay, and therefore it’s unfair that in most political discussions he’s made out to be a sub-par performer in comparison to Kennedy. Nixon is actually a far better orator and now it seems, debater, than he’s usually given credit for.

Debate 4

I will go on the record to say that four individual general election debates is overkill and I’m glad the standard has settled on three from 1976 on. And, Jesus Christ, it looks like this one is confined solely to foreign policy. Which, considering the time period especially, means an hour of chest beating about stopping the evil communists and not much else. I don’t predict I’ll have much to say. It is interesting, however, how long the opening and closing statements are in this particular debate. They literally take up half of the entire running time. Honestly, the rest of it is just reiterating the same insults and talking points once again, I guess in case anyone missed the first three outings. This was before the days when we could watch it again on our own time through the internet after all.

The highlight is Kennedy’s opening statement where he thoroughly eviscerates the Eisenhower administration’s handling of Cuba and emerging nations in Africa. This is by far his strongest piece of rhetoric in any of the debates, and I can definitely see it swaying a lot of independents back in the day. He’s also far more aggressive than he had been in previous debates during the question and answer period. I speculate that after Nixon’s weak performance the first time around, Kennedy got lulled into a false sense of security, and when Nixon did far better in debates 2 and 3, Kennedy realized he underestimated his opponent and then brought out his A-game this time around.

There’s really nothing more to say.

1 Comment

  1. Hi cassie,

    Another good job of analyzing a debate. Clear analysis of the format and big basic issues. Political analysis is clearly a subject at which you excel.


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