Kennedy/Nixon debate fanfare overblown?

Fifty years ago yesterday, John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon faced off in the first televised presidential debate. The debate supposedly “changed the world” and the narrative of the Kennedy win has long been part of history:

It’s now common knowledge that without the nation’s first televised debate – fifty years ago Sunday – Kennedy would never have been president. But beyond securing his presidential career, the 60-minute duel between the handsome Irish-American senator and Vice President Richard Nixon fundamentally altered political campaigns, television media and America’s political history. “It’s one of those unusual points on the timeline of history where you can say things changed very dramatically – in this case, in a single night,” says Alan Schroeder, a media historian and associate professor at Northeastern University, who authored the book, Presidential Debates: Forty Years of High-Risk TV.

But after reading and reviewing the book Getting It Wrong, I’m a little more skeptical of these claims. So let me be the contrarian for a moment and suggest why this media moment from 1960 is overhyped:

1. It is part of the lore of JFK. It was in this moment that the country saw his youthful charm and in contrast, Nixon’s shadiness. JFK’s image fit television perfectly and the media has since played up the Kennedy family as American political royalty. Of course, JFK’s charm was likely evident elsewhere and Nixon was still elected president twice (after having served as vice-president under Eisenhower).

2. It suggests televised debates, in general, are critically important for elections. I’m not sure about this – I think the media thinks they are more important than they are. By always looking for a “winner” and “loser,” candidates are set up to succeed or fail. Television doesn’t lend itself to nuanced debates about critical issues; it is perfect for sound-bites and unflappable dispositions. If the voters care about debates, it is because they have been told that such debates matter.

3. Overall, it suggests TV can be an important contributor to democracy rather than just the source of junk television shows. This is debatable.

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