Fifty Years Since Kennedy v Nixon

Apparently it is 50 years since the first televised Presidential debate in the US. A brilliant account of the contemporary impact of this was given on the  Trollope 19thC Studies list and the author gave his permission for me to reproduce it here…….

“The first televised debate between U.S. presidential candidates — Nixon and Kennedy — occurred fifty years ago today. It was momentous.

I was at Brandeis, and everyone on campus, it seemed, had rented (or knew someone who had rented) a small TV for the occasion. I don’t think there was a Republican in the whole college. Most of us who were activists (including me) had worked against Kennedy in the primaries, seeing him as a slick moderate, unlike Hubert Humphrey, who was still a passionate liberal. But JFK had been the Brandeis commencement speaker in June (following the primaries), and his appeal was impossible to resist. Besides, everyone who was conscious hated Nixon. In 1960 memories were still fresh of his early use of anti-Semitism and his viciousness as an anti-leftist witch-hunter. Eleanor Roosevelt was on our faculty (and near the end of her long life), and I still remember being startled when, in a public meeting, she referred to Nixon as worse than a snake. In the repressed 1950s, few of us had heard respected figures use language like that, and no one was more revered, more respectable than she was.

The 1950s were a terrible time, and Brandeis then was an island of bohemian intellectualism and progressive politics. We were thrilled by Kennedy’s election. His inaugural address was piped into all the Brandeis dining rooms, as was Robert Frost’s reading of a poem for the occasion. “We were America’s before America was ours,” I think it went. (Despite being a mostly Jewish campus, we were aware of our New England identity, too, and were responsive to Frost’s craggy sensibility.) Like the rest of the country, we were truly excited by JFK’s call for a new generation (us) to come forward to change the world. Already active in the civil rights and nuclear disarmament movements, we were more than ready.

As it turned out, Kennedy was a disappointing president, unable to exert strong leadership over foreign policy or to act decisively in support of civil rights. Lyndon Johnson, his successor, was far superior on domestic policy. (His being a more aggressive imperialist than Kennedy was may be why Kennedy was assassinated.) Johnson was a real shit of a human being, but he knew how to get his way, and because of him the Civil Rights laws of 1965 and Medicare were passed.

I see strong similarities between Kennedy and Obama — both extremely attractive, both representing a breakthrough in U.S. politics, both inspiring great hope, and both surprisingly weak politically. The difference between them lies in their times. In the 1960s U.S. capitalism was vigorous and expanding; today it’s in retreat. And young people then really believed that a better world was possible. It was their radical protests, urban riots, huge demonstrations, loud and thoughtful critiques, and overall courage that prompted Johnson and the rest of the establishment to do the right thing. The alternative was more trouble than the powers-that-be wanted.

Robert Lapides”

I answered….

“Many thanks Rob – that is a fascinating account. Of course it took 50 years for the idea to catch on in the UK and we had our first Prime Ministerial debates  earlier this year! Extraordinary really. The arguments against it were – and I am certainly not wholly dismissing them –

1. that it would concentrate too much attention on irrelevancies of appearance and so on – and indeed in this first example the contrast must have been fairly
stark between JFK and Nixon (interestingly somewhat replicated by the contrast presented between Brown and Clegg/Cameron)
2. that it completely marginalises smaller parties especially in Scotland and Wales (where the smaller parties are not smaller parties if you follow me!) – maybe this does not apply in the US? Do third-party candidates ever get a look in?

In addition for me the most poisonous effect is that the questions are set in terms of the political establishment so no radical suggestions are ever posed. The ‘consensus’ (pro-capitalism) is accepted without question and the drive to be ‘moderate’ (in fact to bow down to the market) becomes a stampede.
 
Having said all of this I think that I would probably still come down on the side of having them as a necessary democratic process. But – to come back a bit on topic – I wonder what Trollope’s attitude would have been? As he was in general suspicious of the democratic process and highly attuned to its flaws, I suspect that he would have been opposed. Certainly one cannot see dear old Plantagenet Palliser performing well in a world of spin-doctors and surface appearances and glib rhetoric.”

Bob replied…
“I was drawing on memories of a much more innocent time (and self), and exciting as it was 50 years ago to root for Kennedy (or more recently for Obama), the TV debates are, exactly as you say, superficial and undemocratic. The questions asked are almost always safe; leftist parties are never represented; and good looks and charm count for far too much. American politics has become a show, and the electorate is swayed by how delightful candidates are. My impression of Tony Blair is that he was unusually American for a British prime minister, in that he was a vile man whose glib personality masked profound dishonesty. But I suppose he differed from his predecessors only in how appealing he was on television. The others were no doubt just as willing to betray the majority of the population in order to serve the powerful.”

And I answered…
“….your analysis of Blair is spot on. Unfortunately a pernicious result of his success has been that most leading politicians here now do attempt to be clones of him – including the leader of all three main parties now. Actually I do think his glib dishonesty was new here. This is not to say I approved of all of his predecessors!! But I don’t think you could accuse Thatcher of glibness. The class enemy was revealed in all its horror then – but not glibly :).

Actually I was also thinking about what you said about LBJ. Because the best Prime Minister of my lifetime by a long way was his contemporary here – Harold
Wilson. This was definitely not for any personal qualities or charisma, and, although he was a long way to the left of Blair/Brown, he was certainly not a
socialist. But during his term there were several considerable and genuine achievements —
1) we stayed out of Vietnam (Blair would have been in there like a shot of course)
2) Homosexuality was decriminalised
3) Abortion was legalised
4) The Equal Pay Act was passed

Wilson himself probably had little to do with any of these except 1, but they happened on his watch and they all had very, very real and important effects.”

All another way of saying that, despite the mythologising, the sixties were a period of real advance (which is why they come under attack from reactionaries and conservatives).

2 thoughts on “Fifty Years Since Kennedy v Nixon

  1. Bob Lapides

    I was too young to appreciate Harold Wilson, except that when he left office I was aware, even here in the U.S., that something had been lost. I find that whole generation of Labour politicians interesting, as their undeniable class-consciousness was, I think, unable to resist the comforts that came in the ’50s and later. But I shouldn’t be sounding as though I really know this, as it’s only an impression.

    I mis-remembered the line from Frost’s poem. It was the first line in the poem below, which he wrote in 1942. He composed another poem for JFK’s inauguration, but the sun blinded him — he was 86 — and, unable to read his text, he recited the older poem, which he knew by heart. It’s wonderful.

    The land was ours before we were the land’s.
    She was our land more than a hundred years
    Before we were her people. She was ours
    In Massachusetts, in Virginia,
    But we were England’s, still colonials,
    Possessing what we still were unpossessed by,
    Possessed by what we now no more possessed.
    Something we were withholding made us weak
    Until we found out that it was ourselves
    We were withholding from our land of living,
    And forthwith found salvation in surrender.
    Such as we were we gave ourselves outright
    (The deed of gift was many deeds of war)
    To the land vaguely realizing westward,
    But still unstoried, artless, unenhanced,
    Such as she was, such as she would become.

  2. nick2209

    Many thanks Bob. Of course when I said life-time I was being literal – these events are not within my memory 🙂 as I can only really recall Wilson’s 3rd and 4th terms (which were in the 70’s and very disappointing) – but they did occur within my lifetime.

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