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.

The Kennedy-Nixon debate. Click image to expand.
The Kennedy-Nixon debate

Fifty years ago, on Sept. 26, 1960, John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon squared off in the first-ever televised general-election presidential debate. Within days, if not hours, the event gave rise to a mythology so well-known by now that it scarcely needs repeating. Handsome, dapper, poised, and articulate, Kennedy dispelled with his appearance any nagging worries that he might be too callow for the presidency. Clammy-faced, awkward, and plagued by his gloomy five-o'clock shadow, Nixon reinforced what he called "the Herblock image," in reference to his nemesis, the Washington Post cartoonist, who had already immortalized Nixon's menacing mug. As the story goes, the winner that night was not just Kennedy but the television image itself, which had, in a single stroke, demonstrated its newfound kingmaking power.

Awidely told tale. But it's not quite correct.

There's no doubt that Kennedy looked better than Nixon that night. Wearing a dark suit and flashing his boyish smile, the junior senator from Massachusetts radiated charisma. Nixon, recovering from a knee infection and a cold, looked gaunt in his gray suit, which blended in with the walls, and sweat streaked his Lazy-Shave powder. "Fire the make-up man," Nixon's press aide Herb Klein was told by a supporter. "Everybody in this part of the country thinks Nixon is sick. Three doctors agreed he looked as if he had just suffered a coronary." Henry Cabot Lodge, Nixon's running mate, supposedly said, "That son of a bitch just cost us the election."

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There's also little doubt that debates helped Kennedy. By 1960, approximately 90 percent of American homes had TV sets, and an estimated 70 million people watched the first contest. At the time of the encounter, the candidates were neck-and-neck, but afterward, Kennedy's pollster Lou Harris wrote a memo for the campaign noting that the senator had opened up a 48 to 43 percent lead in his latest survey—a turn that marked, he said, "the first time that either candidate has been able to show the other open water." Harris concluded confidently, "This is almost wholly the result of the Monday night debate." Public polls also showed Kennedy pulling into the lead after the debate.

What is open to doubt is whether Kennedy's victory was the result of a purely visual superiority to Nixon, as is widely assumed. Surprisingly, there's almost no evidence to support the claim that it was Kennedy's looks—as opposed to his overall performance—that gave him the edge. For decades, it has become part of the folklore of the debate to say that in contrast to those who watched the debate on TV, radio listeners judged Nixon the winner. But a few scholars, including Michael Schudson and the team of David L. Vancil and Sue D. Pendell, have looked into the matter, and it turns out there's no good reason to believe that assertion is true, either.

Virtually all of the evidence for Nixon's alleged superiority on radio is strictly anecdotal—and there isn't even much of it. The syndicated columnist Ralph McGill wrote in a column that a sampling of "a number of people" he spoke to who listened on radio "unanimously thought Mr. Nixon had the better of it"—but that hardly amounted to a reliable poll. Earl Mazo of the New York Herald Tribune, who was friendly to Nixon, recorded a similar judgment, again based on personal impression.

The person who did the most to etch this groundless idea in subsequent accounts of the debates was the historian-journalist Theodore H. White. In his Making of the President, 1960,the ur-text for chroniclers of the Great Debates, White wrote, "Those who heard the debates on radio, according to sample surveys believed that the two candidates came off almost equal. Yet every survey of those who watched the debates on television," White wrote, said Nixon had lost. "It was the picture image that had done it." It's worth pointing out that White didn't claim that radio listeners thought Nixon had won, simply that the two men fared equally well. But was he right? White didn't specify the "sample surveys" he mentioned and provided no footnoting or other sourcing for others to track them down.

From research that other scholars have conducted, it appears that only one survey with anything approximating a scientific method of polling found Nixon to have prevailed over Kennedy among radio audiences. The media scholars Elihu Katz and Jacob Feldman looked at all of the polls about the debate—a survey of surveys, they called it—and found that polls didn't break radio listeners out as a separate group. The one that did, conducted by Albert E. Sindlinger's Philadelphia-based market research firm, did find a large discrepancy, with Nixon winning among radio listeners 43 percent to 20 percent and Kennedy winning among TV watchers, 28 percent to 19 percent.

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.

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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