Did JFK really win because he looked better on television?

The history behind current events.
Sept. 24 2010 7:16 AM

Rewinding the Kennedy-Nixon Debates

Did JFK really win because he looked better on television?

See our Magnum Photos gallery on the Kennedy/Nixon debate and campaigns.

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But Vancil and Pendell found several reasons for being skeptical of Sindlinger's findings. First, only 282 radio listeners were surveyed—fewer than is usually considered sound for a national random sample. Second, there was no effort to poll a representative group, so we have no idea whether the survey included, for example, a disproportionate number of Republicans. Third, there was no effort to explore whether radio listeners as a group might have been more likely from the start to prefer Nixon—perhaps, say, because they lived in more rural areas that television had not yet penetrated. (Relatively few Catholics—a key Kennedy constituency—lived in the countryside.)

Vancil and Pendell even present some statistical evidence to suggest that the Sindlinger sample probably included a disproportionate number of Nixon supporters. In any event, this single, flawed survey hardly constitutes strong enough grounds for the idea that Nixon won on radio to have gained the currency that it has.

So the notion that Nixon won on radio but lost the debate—and, in some tellings, the presidency—"only" because Kennedy looked better on the tube turns out to be lacking in much support. Still, is there any harm if everyone believes it? It's hard to say. But maybe. This garbled historical factoid has become, as Vancil and Pendell wrote, "part of the foundation for a variety of concerns" that TV images distort our politics—or what Schudson called "telemythology." It has played a role in legitimizing a critique of television and politics that may be somewhat oversimplified.

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As I wrote 10 years ago in a History Lesson column on presidential debates—a column in which, mea culpa, I did my part to retail the myth that Kennedy's visual superiority was responsible for his victory (I hadn't then read the scholarly articles mentioned above)—the debates spawned a pervasive line of critique, expressed most lastingly by Daniel Boorstin in The Image, that argued that the debates did nothing to convey "which participant was better qualified for the presidency," instead "reducing great national issues to trivial dimensions." For Boorstin, as for many others, this rise of the image endangered democracy itself. (An illustrative excerpt is here.)

Ironically, though, at the time of the debates, not everyone agreed that the candidates shortchanged a discussion of the issues. For all the laments that Kennedy and Nixon postured excessively, or that TV focused too much on smiles and stubble, many analysts assessed the contests differently. For them, the problem with the debates lay not in their lack of substance but in the rapid-fire barrage of information-rich answers, which made it hard for viewers to take some kind of broader measure of the two men. "Not even a trained political observer," noted the journalist Douglass Cater, who moderated one debate, "could keep up with the crossfire of fact and counterfact, of the rapid references to Rockefeller Reports, Lehman amendments, prestige analyses, GNP and a potpourri of other so-called facts. Or was the knack of merely seeming well-informed what counted with the viewer?" Public opinion expert Samuel Lubell came to a similar conclusion. He cited voters he interviewed who "tried to make sense of the arguments of the candidates 'but the more we listened, the more confused we got.' "

Nonetheless the judgment has remained that in the 1960 presidential election, as Kennedy himself said a few days after the election, "it was TV more than anything else that turned the tide." Whether or not that's actually true, the perception of television's influence went on to transform American politics, shaping the behavior of leaders and candidates for decades—leading politicians and candidates, among other things, to study issues, craft statements, memorize jokes, refine positions, and rehearse feverishly for the inescapable campaign ritual that the quadrennial presidential debates have become.

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David Greenberg, a professor of history and of journalism and media studies at Rutgers University, worked at the New Republic in the early 1990s as an intern, as managing editor, and as acting editor.

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