Monday, September 14, 2009

Like watching paint dry...

Yes, I continue to be riddled with guilt about my lack of postage. I was talking with a friend the other day and reeling off my litany of excuses for not posting: too busy with work, too busy with school, too busy drinking wine and debating the merits of Ryan's Steakhouse (which, for the record, I think is completely gagifying even if you can top your potato with another potato or make your own heinously large BMI-busting sundae if you're brave enough to grasp the snot-covered ice-cream dispenser handle), too busy eating at Jasmine, too busy being inappropriately touched. On the shoulder. (Hi Sandy. That was for you.)

This friend suggested I post my latest school paper which I declared, in my very, very, most annoying and whiniest voice, was the only damn thing I've written lately. And so I'm taking his advice. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you my paper on the Kennedy-Nixon Debate of 1960, an event that happened MANY YEARS (many, many) before my own birth. Which, of course, doesn't stop me from having all kinds of opinions about it.

Nixon-Kennedy Debate
The Nixon-Kennedy debate held September 26, 1960, featured presidential candidates Richard M. Nixon, at that time vice president under Dwight Eisenhower, as the nominee of the Republican Party, and John F. Kennedy, a Senator from Massachusetts, as the nominee of the Democratic Party. The debate, lasting an hour in total, allowed each candidate an opportunity to respond to questions from a panel of media correspondents. By prior arrangement, both candidates agreed the subject of the debate would be limited to domestic affairs and that each would be allowed an 8-minute opening statement. This debate, one of the first of its kind, introduced the visual element of television into the equation. (Woolley)

The opening statements by Kennedy and Nixon are nothing if not remarkably similar in content and issue identification. Both debaters include the economy, the threat of communism, power production, civil rights, education, social security, elder care, and Medicare as major issues. As the debate begins, Kennedy, the candidate to give the first opening statement, identifies these issues and Nixon, speaking second, in many cases, agrees with Kennedy’s assessments and goes so far as to point out the many areas in which the candidate’s views are similar. While this may be true enough, this may mark the first misstep by Nixon in making the republican come across as weaker by agreeing with rather than taking the chance stand in contrast to his opponent. On balance, Nixon makes an excellent case during his eight minutes, specifically, that the Eisenhower administration, of which he is a part, has implemented programs that have boosted the economy and made the Americans of 1960, in general, more prosperous than they had been in the past. (Kennedy-Nixon Debate ¼)

As the debate unfolds, upon watching the video, one cannot mistake the difference in looks and demeanor of the candidates. Both Nixon and Kennedy do, at times, seem tense when watching the video, it is nearly always Nixon who comes across as more tense and even, at times, looks haggard. By minute twenty, the viewer can clearly see beads of sweat standing out on Nixon’s face. Kennedy, in contrast, looks (and is) younger, more confident, relaxed, and never breaks a sweat. Kennedy’s chin is held higher, his manner, arguably, more presidential. Kennedy seldom smiles while Nixon smiles somewhat more frequently and nervously. (Kennedy-Nixon Debate 2/4)

While one cannot help but be struck by the difference in looks and manner when watching the video, the opposite is true upon reading the transcript. Nixon’s question responses are dense with facts and figures. Nixon’s remarks are, on average, longer, more specific, and more complex than Kennedy’s more general responses. (Woolley) This fact, however, is easily lost when viewing the debate on video.

As significant as the Nixon’s sweating that begins at around the twenty minute mark is a question posed to a somewhat already seemingly (visually, at least) shaken Nixon at approximately minute twenty-five. The question, posed by a Mr. Vanocur reads in part, “…Now, in his news conference on August twenty-fourth, President Eisenhower was asked to give one example of a major idea of yours that he adopted. His reply was, and I'm quoting; "If you give me a week I might think of one. I don't remember." Now that was a month ago, sir, and the President hasn't brought it up since, and I'm wondering, sir, if you can clarify which version is correct” (Woolley) The beginning of the question referred to Vice President Nixon’s campaign claim that he is a proven, effective leader. One cannot help but be struck by the somewhat negative tone of this question both in reading the transcript and watching the video delivery of query. On balance, no question of quite this sort is posed to Kennedy. Again, Nixon’s sweating betrays him, although he offers an excellent response, explaining that specific credit is almost never given to cabinet members and team advisers of the President. (Kennedy-Nixon Debate 2/4)

As significant as the “If you give me a week and I might think of one” question is to Nixon, perhaps the most significant exchange for Kennedy occurs afterward when Mr. Novins poses the question that reads, in part,

“…And I'm wondering how you, if you're president in January, would go about paying the bill for all this. Does this mean that you?
MR. KENNEDY: I didn't indicate. I did not advocate reducing the federal debt because I don't believe that you're going to be able to reduce the federal debt very much in nineteen sixty-one, two, or three. I think you have heavy obligations which affect our security, which we're going to have to meet. And therefore I've never suggested we should uh - be able to retire the debt substantially, or even at all in nineteen sixty-one or two.
MR. NOVINS: Senator, I believe in - in one of your speeches
MR. KENNEDY: No, never.
MR. NOVINS: - you suggested that reducing the interest rate would help toward -
MR. KENNEDY: No. No. Not reducing the interest -
MR. NOVINS: - a reduction of the Federal debt.
MR. KENNEDY: - reducing the interest rate…”

While a strict reading of the transcript would indicate that Kennedy reversed himself in the heat of a difficult question, in watching the video, this exchange actually comes off as a victory for Kennedy. Timed as it is, immediately after Nixon’s difficult question, Kennedy, seeing the shoe about to drop, takes the offensive. By calmly and insistently challenging the questioner and refusing to accept that he may have advocated for the reduction of the Federal debt (and the smart money says he did), Kennedy comes off as the calm, in charge victor whereas a smiling, sweaty Nixon reads as defeated, at least in the visual sense.

Incredibly, in the wake of this difficult question for Kennedy, Nixon, who may have pressed his advantage here, again as in the opening, having another chance to draw apart and contrast himself with his opponent essentially actually defends Kennedy saying, “I think what Mr. Novins was referring to was not one of Senator Kennedy's speeches, but the Democratic platform, which did mention cutting the national debt. I think, too, that it should be pointed out that of course it is not possible, particularly under the proposals that Senator Kennedy has advocated, either to cut the national debt or to reduce taxes. As a matter of fact it will be necessary to raise taxes.” While Nixon might get “good sport” points on some level, this marks yet another failure of Nixon to take advantage of a situation handed to him by circumstances, a talent Kennedy seems to possess in spades. Ultimately, Nixon’s defense of his opponent does nothing so much as make an already presidential looking Kennedy look (if possible) more presidential while leaving a smiling, sweaty, too-thin Nixon looking distinctly second best. (Kennedy-Nixon Debate 2/4)

Also significant is the fact that Kennedy, either by luck or design, was given the opportunity to give the first opening statement as well as the last closing statement. If indeed, the beginning and end of a presentation are the most significant and lasting things an audience takes away, Kennedy’s advantage in this opening and closing placement is almost incalculable. By the time Kennedy makes his closing statement, the very last thing television viewers see of the debate, he is calm, noticeably calmer than he was to begin with, and certainly more calm and presidential than the, by this time, visually bested Nixon has been throughout the exchange. Kennedy’s closing statement is concise, persuasive and smacks of victory. (Kennedy-Nixon Debate ¼, 4/4)

The Nixon-Kennedy debate presents a fascinating dichotomy between content and impression, perhaps the first of its kind in US history. A strict read of the transcript would suggest that, while both candidates are well prepared and intelligent, Nixon has the edge having easily more facts and figures at his disposal, as well as more well thought out responses, and a better track record of experience to stand on. In this case, however, the element of television essentially hands Kennedy the victory, allowing him to take advantage of his superior looks, commanding demeanor, and ability to seize the moment. Nixon, in contrast, lacks Kennedy’s talent for thinking on his feet, continually failing to take advantage of the opportunities handed to him by the situation. In the end, Nixon comes across as more tentative, less commanding, and perhaps most surprisingly, almost a fan of the Massachusetts Senator himself. Kennedy, meanwhile, comes across as presidential, self-assured, and superior. Judged on content, Nixon is the victor in this historic debate. Judged on impression, Kennedy scores a run-away victory. The Nixon-Kennedy debate may well mark the first time in US politics that the phrase “perception is reality” comes into its own.


Anonymous said...

This is great! I had heard a lot of this, but never to this detail. You deserve an A.

Suzanne said...

Thanks, Jeanna! You're right, I did get an A. My paper was returned last night.