Sunday, September 26, 2010

Myth-busting the Kennedy-Nixon Debates

Ten days ago, I ran a blog post on the 1960 Kennedy-Nixon Presidential campaign. The focus of the piece was how we make choices - including those that decide the fate of the world - based on emotion rather than reason. My piece made a brief reference to the three television debates, which Nixon won on radio but lost to the more telegenic Kennedy on TV.

Today marks the 50th anniversary of the first JFK-Nixon debate, with no shortage of media attention, including a NY Times op-ed piece by Ted Sorensen, a top JFK aide who helped prep his boss for the debates. The popular myth has it that the debates were a triumph of style over substance. That may have been the case, but as Sorensen notes:

In fact, there was far more substance and nuance in that first debate than in what now passes for political debate in our increasingly commercialized, sound-bite Twitter-fied culture, in which extremist rhetoric requires presidents to respond to outrageous claims.

Indeed, that is the case. In researching my previous blog post, I reviewed a number of clips from the three debates on YouTube. I was tremendously impressed at the quality of the debate, way higher than what passes for political discourse in this day and age. The two may have projected entirely different TV personae, but what they both showed in common was an extraordinary level of deep thinking.  Clearly, these were two forceful intellectuals with a thorough grasp of the issues, each one making a strong case that they were the right man to lead the US and the free world through a time of global and domestic uncertainty.

Why would this have mattered to an American public 50 years ago? The knock on Kennedy prior to the debate was that he was a lightweight, way too young to be taken seriously, with little experience compared to Nixon. Even though both were around the same age (the two served as junior Navy officers in World War II and entered Congress the same year), Nixon was perceived as Kennedy's elder.

What surprised me in reviewing these clips was Kennedy's gravitas, not his sex appeal. If anything, by today's standards, JFK could be considered a nerdy wonk. Yes, he looked better on camera than Nixon, but what the American public really saw was a serious Presidential candidate who deserved to be on the same stage as the better-known Nixon. An undecided voter could now vote for JFK with a clear conscience.

To drive the point home: Kennedy "won" these encounters by debating the favored Nixon to a draw, by convincingly displaying that he deserved to be taken as seriously as his rival. This is what would have mattered most to voters, not his pretty boy charm. Yes, the Kennedy charisma would have entered into it, but these were the days before movie stars ran for high office.

Does this mean that voters back then cast their votes according to considered reason rather than emotion? No way. Major and minor decisions 50 years later are still made by the brain's primitive limbic system. The more highly evolved cortical areas merely rationalize how the non-thinking pleasure and fear centers react. But the thinking part of the brain still needs something to work with. Voters may have "liked" Kennedy more and "hated" Nixon with even greater intensity, but most of them were still ready to vote for Nixon till Kennedy gave them a valid reason to "think" otherwise.

Then they became "comfortable" with their choice. So the progression works something like this: A "like" or a "hate" or both from the limbic system, then over to the cortical areas to justify the decision, then back to the limbic system for that comforting glow.

Sorensen also noted that on the key issues, the two candidates did not vastly differ. Intriguingly, "while Kennedy would probably find a home in today’s Democratic Party, it is unlikely that Nixon would receive a warm welcome among the Tea Party."

My guess is the reason Republicans have failed to rehabilitate Nixon has less to  do with Watergate than with the fact that he was far more liberal as a President (1969-1974) than Clinton. Nixon had no place for fringe conservatives, who have long ago taken over the Republican party. Of all things, Nixon could be called "the last liberal President," less liberal than his predecessor LBJ, but willing to serve a broadly progressive agenda for the common good.

Crazy, huh?

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