Force That Has Changed
The Political Scene
Sen. John F. Kennedy
wonders of science and technology have revolutionized the
modern American political campaign. Giant electronic brains
project results on the basis of carefully conducted polls.
Automatic typewriters prepare thousands of personally addressed
letters, individually signed by automatic pens. Jet planes
make possible a coast-to-coast speaking schedule no observation-car
back platform could ever meet.
wash-and-wear fabrics permit the wilted nonstop candidate
to travel lighter, farther and faster.
nothing compares with the revolutionary impact of television.
TV has altered drastically the nature of our political campaigns,
conventions, constituents, candidates and costs. Some politicians
regard it with suspicion, others with pleasure. Some candidates
have benefited by using it-others have been advised to avoid
it. To the voter and vote-getter alike, TV offers new opportunities,
new challenges and new problems.
for better or worse-and I side with those who feel its net
effect can definitely be for the better-the impact of TV
on politics is tremendous. Just 40 years ago Woodrow Wilson
exhausted his body and mind in an intensive cross-country
tour to plead the cause of the League of Nations. Three
weeks of hard travel and 40 speeches brought on a stroke
before had finished "taking his case to the people" in the
only way then available. Today, President Dwight Eisenhower,
taking his case to the people on the labor situation, is
able to reach several million in one 15-minute period without
ever leaving his office.
another example: The most dramatic political trial in our
history was the Impeachment trial of President Andrew Johnson
in 1868, avidly followed by all the Nation. Newspaper accounts
were decidedly partisan- those who wished to see and judge
for themselves flocked to Washington by carriage and train.
But even if every seat in the Senate galleries had been
occupied by a different person every day for the two months
of trial, no more than 3000 people could have witnessed
that historic event. But In the month of May 1954, an estimated
70 million TV viewers watched part or all of the Army-McCarthy
hearings, the Kefauver crime hearings, the McClellan rackets
hearings, the conventions of 1952 and 1956-these and other
"political TV spectaculars" have given the American public
new ideas, new attitudes, new heroes and new villains. Less
dramatic but also important have been the televised panel
press conferences, the debates, interviews, campaign speeches
and even the political commercials. Many new political reputations
have been made on TV-and many old ones have been broken.
searching eye of the television camera scrutinizes the candidates-and
the way they are picked. Party leaders are less willing
to run roughshod over the voters' wishes and hand-pick an
unknown, unappealing or unpopular in the traditional "smoke-filled
room" when millions of voters are watching, comparing and
slick or bombastic orator, pounding the table and ringing
the rafters, is not as welcome in the family living room
as he was in the town square or party hail. In the old days,
many a seasoned politician counted among his most highly
developed and useful talents his ability to dodge a reporter's
question, evade a "hot" Issue and avoid a definite stand.
But today a vast viewing public is able to detect such deception
and, in my opinion, willing to respect political honesty.
vigor, compassion, intelligence-the presence or lack of
these and other qualities make up what is called the candidate's
"image." While some intellectuals and politicians may scoff
at these "images"-and while they may in fact be based only
on a candidate's TV impression, ignoring his record, views
and other appearances-my own conviction is that these images
or impressions are likely to be uncannily correct. I think,
no matter what their defenders or detractors may say, that
the television public has a fairly good idea of what Dwight
D. Eisenhower is really like-or Jimmy Hoffa-or John McClellan-
or Vice President Nixon-or countless others.
is why a new breed of candidates has sprung up on both the
state and national levels. Republican Governors Rockefeller
(New York) and Hatfield (Oregon) successfully countered
the Democratic trend in 1958 with particular reliance on
TV appeal. The list of fresh Democratic faces who understood-and
scored on--this medium in 1958 is almost endless: including
new governors such as Edmondson of Oklahoma and Patterson
of Alabama, new senators such as McGee of Wyoming and Hart
of Michigan, new mayors such as Gracy of Baltimore (1959)-as
well as a host of others, elected or reelected in 1958 or
of these men are comparatively young. Their youth may still
be a handicap in the eyes of the older politicians-but it
is definitely an asset in creating a television image people
like and (most difficult of all) remember.
is not to say that all the politicians of yesteryear would
nave been failures in the Age of Television. The rugged
vigor of Teddy Roosevelt, the determined sincerity of Woodrow
Wilson, the quiet dignity of Lincoln and the confidence-inspiring
calm of FDR-all would have been tremendously effective on
you imagine the effect of televising FDR's "Fireside Chats"?
How different history might have been had a nationwide TV
network carried Bryan's Cross of Gold speech-or the Teapot
Dome investigation-or Lincoln's First Inaugural Address.
political success on television is not, unfortunately, limited
only to those who deserve it. It is a medium which lends
itself to manipulation, exploitation and gimmicks. It can
be abused by demagogs, by appeals to emotion and prejudice
campaigns can be actually taken over by the "public relations"
experts, who tell the candidate not only how to use TV but
what to say, what to stand for and what "kind of person"
to be. Political shows, like quiz shows, can be fixed-and
other great problem TV presents for politics is the item
of financial cost. It is no small item. In the 1956 campaign,
the Republican National Committee, according to the Gore
report, spent over $3,000,000 for television-and the Democratic
National Committee, just under $2,800,000 on television
candidates and parties are to have equal access to this
essential and decisive campaign medium, without becoming
deeply obligated to the big financial contributors from
the worlds of business, labor or other major lobbies, then
the time has come when a solution must be found to this
problem of TV costs.
is not the place to discuss alternative remedies. But the
basic point is this: Whether TV improves or worsens our
political system, whether it serves the purpose of political
education or deception, whether it gives us better or poorer
candidates, more intelligent or more prejudiced campaigns-the
answers to all this are up to you, the viewing public.
in your power to perceive deception, to shut off gimmickry,
to reward honesty, to demand legislation where needed. Without
your approval, no TV show is worthwhile and no politician
is the way it always has been and will continue to be-and
that is the way it should be.