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THE GREAT DEBATES
by Earl Mazzo

Earl Mazzo was head of the Washington Bureau of the New York Herald-Tribune when this paper was published in 1962. He traveled extensively with both candidates during the 1960 Presidential campaign, and had access to much private poll and public opinion research data in the course of covering the election.

President Kennedy and those intimate with his campaign for the Presidency in 1960 are certain that the paramount factor in his victory was the Great Debates on television, especially the first one.

Former Vice-President Nixon and those closest to his campaign agree that the debates cost the Republican cause dearly. But they contend that other negative factors were more decisive in the Nixon defeat. Robert Finch, the Nixon campaign director, says, for instance: "Conceding the worst on everything else, we still would have won if 400,000 people had not become unemployed during the last thirty days of the campaign."

My own view, based on an analysis of surveys and polls I consider reliable and on a first-hand acquaintanceship with much of the campaign and its participants, is that if there had been no debates on television, Nixon would have been elected President.

The Presidential television spectaculars began as a public service promotion by one network. All the networks quickly joined in, offering free time to the major party candidates if Congress would suspend a rule requiring equal time for all candidates, including those of minor parties and the crackpots who always get their names on ballots in some states. The rule suspension passed Congress during its session after the Conventions and was signed by President Eisenhower on August 24.

One of the oldest axioms of American politics is that well-known candidates should not appear jointly with or in any other way lend their prestige to lesser-known opponents. At the outset of the 1960 campaign Republican Richard Nixon, the Vice-President for nearly eight years, was far more widely known than Democrat John F. Kennedy, the junior Senator from Massachusetts. Mr. Kennedy's principal distinction was as an adroit and relentless campaigner for the Democratic nomination who turned generally regarded political liabilities like religion and youth into vote-getting assets.

President Eisenhower privately objected to Mr. Nixon's debating his Democratic rival. When he signed the measure suspending the equal-time rule, Eisenhower pointedly stated that the free time offered by networks would not necessarily "have to be in a debating atmosphere."

Senator Kennedy was eager for joint appearances with Vice-President Nixon, however-the more the merrier. Nixon was well aware that he had practically nothing to gain from debates and that his opponent automatically would come off best merely if he held his own and avoided visibly serious blunders. Still, the Vice-President could find no graceful way of rejecting the television network offers. Pierre Salinger, Kennedy's campaign press secretary and now press spokesman at the White House, told me long after the election that Kennedy and his advisors were surprised that Nixon agreed to the joint appearance.

As individuals, both candidates were master performers on television. Both also were superior debaters. Nixon's "Checkers speech" in the 1952 campaign is still a landmark in political television. During that half-hour program the Republican nominee for Vice-President transformed himself from a major liability who was on the verge of being thrown off the Eisenhower ticket into a campaign asset. Furthermore, Nixon owed his election to Congress in 1946-the start of his political career-to the fact that his opponent, veteran Democratic Congressman Jerry Voorhis, agreed to a series of debates. Just a year before his campaign for the Presidency Nixon achieved a new high in national popularity after his "Kitchen Debate" with Soviet Premier Khrushchev.

Kennedy also had a string of television and debating successes prior to the Presidential spectacular of 1960. His election as Senator from Massachusetts in 1952 resulted in part from the fact that Senator Henry Cabot Lodge made somewhat the same mistake Nixon was to make eight years later. The 50-year-old Senator Lodge agreed to debate the 35-year-old Representative Kennedy. And although the Lodge-Kennedy debates were adjudged a stand-off by the experts, political professionals were aware that the young Representative Kennedy, a junior member of the House with no particular record of accomplishment, had greatly improved his prospects merely by standing on the same platform and seeming to do as well as Lodge, a notable figure in the upper house, leader of the Eisenhower movement, and grandson and namesake of a distinguished Senator.

During his long campaign for the Democratic nomination Kennedy repeatedly demonstrated his prowess as a television personality and crowd persuader. His televised exchange with Harry Truman just before the Democratic National Convention and his "'debate" with Lyndon Johnson during the Convention should in themselves have given the Nixon camp pause when the Great Debates were subsequently proposed.

The first Kennedy-Nixon encounter on September 26, 1960, was unquestionably the most consequential. The Kennedy campaign hierarchy figured with considerable justification that it was the only debate that really mattered. Kennedy was so effective in conveying what the trade calls an "image of maturity" in his first try that the three debates that followed were anti-climactic-important only to the extent that Kennedy felt compelled to keep on his toes and maintain the advantage that his private polls showed him to have gained at the start.

Aside from any effect it may have had on voters, the really telling impact of this first joint appearance was on the candidates, their entourages, and Republican and Democratic partisans across the country. Before September 26, the Nixon camp was riding high. Huge, enthusiastic crowds were turning out for the Republican candidate; Republicans were wearing broad victory smiles even in the Deep South; and the Nixon campaign organization was full of zest. The Kennedy campaign, on the other hand, had not yet got off the ground. At Detroit's annual Labor Day rally in Cadillac Square, the combined efforts of Walter Reuter and the other labor leaders could hardly turn out a respectable crowd for candidate Kennedy. Party people everywhere seemed to have a lacksadaisical attitude toward their standard-bearer and his cause.

But the candidates and their followers underwent an immediate change after the first debate. Now the Kennedy camp walked on clouds, while the Nixon camp became grim and nervous and could talk only of "recouping." The Kennedy image on television that first night sparkled, while Nixon's was a disaster. The next day and for days afterwards, crowds turned out to see the handsome figure of the Democratic candidate in the flesh, while Republican officials descended on Nixon to see for themselves if he was as "sick" as he had appeared on the television screens. At one point, Herbert Klein, the Nixon press secretary, found it necessary to issue a statement: "Mr. Nixon is in excellent health and looks good in person."

Ever since, there have been intensive discussions among politicians and television production experts about the make-up, the lighting, the color of suits, hairdos, sunlamp treatments, and so forth-illustrating that the debates were practically as much a duel between make-up artists and technical directors as a contest for the Presidency of the United States.

Both sides prepared carefully for each session, of course. But an added fillip made the Kennedy warm-up unique. A Kennedy organization man, borrowed from the staff of Governor Pat Brown of California, followed Nixon almost everywhere to record his speeches and off-the-cuff comments, and, prior to each debate, selections from the Nixon tapes were played to Kennedy to help put him in a properly aggressive mood. Nixon "warmed up" very differently. Instead of conferring with a team of briefers or working himself up to a fighting pitch by listening to the recorded voice of his rival, Nixon hid away with notes and memoranda and pondered the pending battles in seclusion.

ASIDE from the candidates, the debates affected most notably the television and the polling and public-opinion reconnoitering industries, two relatively new business enterprises with tremendous growth prospects.

Four different categories of pollsters were in the act. One felt pulses for the candidates and political parties, another for the television networks, and a third for the news media. A fourth worked the polling circuit just for the hell-of-it.

Elihu Katz of the University of Chicago and Jacob J. Feldman of the National Opinion Research Center came across twenty-two different polling operations while making a comprehensive study of the debates. There were many more than that, however, and they ranged from polls by individual Congressional candidates who were interested solely in the impact on their home districts to private operators like the Schwerin Research Corporation, which specializes in testing reactions to television commercials. The Schwerin organization interspersed a few questions about each debate among their queries concerning soap, deodorant, and headache remedy commercials. Schwerin's special audience in a special Manhattan studio went strongly for Kennedy on the first debate.

The ratio was 39 to 23 per cent, with the rest "even" or no opinion. All told, the candidates, their parties, and their other supporters spent well over $250,000 just to audit voter reaction to the debate.

Lou Harris was the principal public-opinion surveyor for Kennedy and the late Claude Robinson was chief pollster for Nixon. Each set up "flash" operations to get their bosses an immediate report after every performance. Harris found things looking up for Kennedy each time, but most notably after the first debate. Robinson minced few words in his summaries. Following the fourth debate, for example, his report to Nixon stated, in part: "Voters give Nixon a little the better in stating his case in the fourth debate." Then he followed up with the nub of the whole business: "Kennedy, however, started the campaign as the less well-known candidate and with many of his adherents wondering about his maturity. He has done a good job of dissipating the immaturity label and has increased his standing on every issue test. Kennedy has succeed in creating a victory psychology."

There were disparities between the polls taken for candidates and those for television networks. For one thing, pollsters surveying for the politicians referred to the audience in terms of "adults" while those for the networks saw the viewers as "television families." Frank Stanton, president of the Columbia Broadcasting System, said that his firm's poll-takers found that audiences for the debates averaged 20 per cent larger than those for entertainment programs at the same time. Half-hour paid political broadcasts had audiences about 30 per cent less than those of the debates according to the CBS surveys. Nearly nine out of ten "television families" tuned in the debates at one time or another, more than half (53.1 per cent) watched at least three, and one family out of four had a television set on for all. Generally, the television industry reported that 75,000,000 people watched the first debate, while the candidates' pollsters reported privately that the figure was closer to 70,000,000. On the second debate the industry figure was 62,500,000, the politicians' figure was 51,000,000; on the third, the figure was 60,000,000 according to the industry, and 48,000,000 according to the political pollsters; and on the fourth debate the spread between the industry and political pulse-takers was 70,000,000 and 48,000,000. Despite the conflicts, every known poll agreed that as a whole the audience for the television performances never fell below 50 to 55 per cent of the nation's adult population-more voters, undoubtedly, than any candidate could ever possibly have reached on his own.

Almost every station carried the debates simultaneously, and in most places there were no alternative programs. In the few communities where Westerns or something else competed with the Presidential performers, the audience ratings for the debates were decidedly lower-between 15 and 20 per cent less, in fact-than in the towns, villages, and cities where the debates monopolized all the channels and television addicts had to watch or go without. Regardless of why people watched, or for how long, there is no doubt that the debates had a substantial impact both in the size of turn-out at the polls and in the way many people voted. The Nixon polling organization figured that 21 per cent of the voters switched their allegiance between Labor Day and October 27, after the fourth debate, and there was a net gain of 1 per cent for Kennedy. Elmo Roper, the most reliable public-opinion analyst I know, found in a post-election survey that 57 per cent of the voters said they had been influenced to an extent by the debates. Six per cent of them-some 4,000,000 voters-decided how to cast their ballots on the basis of the television performances, and their verdict was 3 to 1 for Kennedy, providing him with considerably more votes than the 2/lOOths of 1 per cent by which he won the popular count.

In a rundown of the polls and surveys that they reviewed, Katz and Feldman found that "the debates were more effective in presenting the candidates than the issues" and that Kennedy was the winner from the standpoint of looks and "image," while Nixon led on issues. Just about every pollster, including those measuring public opinion privately for Nixon and Kennedy, agreed with that assessment.

The fact that Nixon came within an infinitesimal margin of victory demonstrates that he personally was much more acceptable to the nation's voters than his party. A private poll taken in his behalf immediately after the Democratic Convention showed that the Kennedy-Johnson ticket would beat any that Nixon led by a decisive 5 to 6 per cent, but, subsequently, Nixon's leadership at the Republican Convention and his unusually well-received acceptance speech brought a shift, and in early August the private surveys showed the two candidates to be running almost even among voters who expressed a preference. There was, however, an extraordinarily large "wait and see" element.

The Republican task was to win over more Democrats and independents by accentuating Nixon's image as an experienced man best qualified to take up where Eisenhower left off. The Kennedy task, essentially, was to get all the Democratic votes and to highlight Nixon's identification as a Republican. A confidential memorandum circulated among key Democratic figures by the party's National Committee noted: "Nixon's clear association in the people's minds with the Republican Party makes it of utmost importance to strengthen that association. At the beginning of 1960 the Democratic Party was still close to its 1958 popularity peak. To close the 3-2 advantage which Democrats enjoy, Nixon must create an 'above the party' image. Democrats can prevent this by continually linking him to the unpopular policies (pro-big business, anti-farmer) of the Republican Party... The new Nixon must be constantly made a Republican, big-business Nixon."

From the organizational and statistical standpoint, any Democrat should have overwhelmed any Republican in the 1960 national election. Across the country, there were three registered Democrats for every two Republicans. Democrats controlled all the major power centers-the governorships, both Senate seats, all the Congressmen, and both houses of the legislature-in eleven states, while the Republicans enjoyed that amount of power in only one, New Hampshire. Thirty-four governors were Democrats, to sixteen Republicans. In Congress, the Democratic majorities were 66-34 in the Senate and 280-152 in the House. Democrats dominated the legislatures in twenty-nine states, the Republicans in seven. In 128 of the nation's 177 cities, the mayors were Democrats. Organizationally, the Republican Party was in its worst shape since the 1936 Roosevelt landslide that almost swept it out of existence.

Notwithstanding its handicaps, the Republican Party did slightly better in the Congressional and state races of 1960 than it had in 1958. Nixon, however, ran well ahead of his party in most places. I am certain he would have done much better-enough to overcome comfortably the margin of his defeat-had the televised debates not cost him the "experience" issue-or, conversely, had they not nullified the "immaturity" issue that Republicans sought to use against Kennedy.

In this instance the television performances did both a "wrong" and a "right." Nixon unquestionably had the "experience," as advertised in his campaign brochures, and Kennedy was by no means "immature."

Next to candidate Kennedy, the television industry was the chief beneficiary of the debates. The interest they generated was a significant factor in the record turn-out of voters, and this dramatized the fantastic potential of televised mass exposure even when the product is politics-or candidates for President. A recheck by the Opinion Research Corporation of persons who said in August that they did not intend to vote found that one out of four of them actually did, and most favored Kennedy. The total turnout of 68,833,000 exceeded the Eisenhower-Stevenson vote of 1956 by more than 6,000,000.

All told, the television networks gave the candidates approximately $6,000,000 worth of free time. This was a notable public service, but it did the television industry no harm. The combined wizardry of all of Madison Avenue's advertising and public relations geniuses could probably never achieve for any industry the degree of saturation and exposure that the debates gave to the television industry. With Presidential candidates performing, free, in the most extensively seen spectacular ever televised, the industry amassed a type and volume of publicity and advertising that it could not have bought at any price. At all levels now, underdog candidates for everything from mayor and sheriff to governor are clamoring for televised debates with their better-known opponents. The focus of political campaigning has moved to television.

IT is interesting to speculate on how televised debates might have altered our history. Henry Steele Commager believes that George Washington would have lost a television debate, and even Jefferson, "for all his erudition and his literary gracefulness," would have done poorly under the klieg lights of a television spectacular.

As one who will never forget the shock of seeing news-reels of Franklin Roosevelt in a wheelchair after the Yalta Conference, I often wondered what the effect might have been if television had revealed to the nation the fact that Roosevelt could not walk. Again, would Dewey have won, or would he have been beaten even more decisively, if the 1948 campaign had been highlighted by Dewey-Truman appearances on national television?

And what of Stevenson and Eisenhower? My conjecture is that the eloquent, articulate, and witty Stevenson would probably have torn his opponent to ribbons on radio-but on television most eyes and hearts would have been won by the Eisenhower smile and "image."

Every medium of political communication has a certain amount of built-in distortion. The Kennedy-Nixon debates pointed up the sharp contrast between radio and television. The night of the first encounter I was in Hot Springs, Arkansas, covering the Southern Governors' Conference. At the time, the Hot Springs television station was not linked directly to a network and its telecast of the debate was a re-play an hour or so after the actual performance. But Hot Springs did have network radio. The reactions of the governors and reporters with whom I first heard, then saw, the debate pointed up the difference between hearing and seeing. Before the encounter on radio was half finished every Kennedy partisan in the room was disparaging the whole idea of a fine, upstanding young man like Senator Kennedy having to clash verbally with a crusty old professional debater like Vice-President Nixon. But the attitude changed immediately when the magic lantern of television came on.

Careful reading of the texts would show that neither candidate really said much that night. Nor did either score any clearly distinctive points. Nixon was best on radio simply because his deep, resonant voice conveyed more conviction, command, and determination than Kennedy's higher-pitched voice and his Boston-Harvard accent But on television, Kennedy looked sharper, more in control, more firm - his was the image of the man who could stand up to Khrushchev.

It may be significant that Nixon did best on Election Day in areas that had the biggest radio audiences for the debates, especially the first one. For instance, in the West, which Nixon carried, 9 per cent of the adults heard the performances on radio; in the East, which Nixon lost, the radio audience was about 2 per cent.

Television obviously has already had a great effect on American politics, and it is likely to have much more. The last national party Conventions were planned and executed mostly for the benefit of television. It is possible that by 1964 the campaigns for President will begin to center on televised debates. As a political reporter who has observed many campaigns at all levels for more than two decades, I look at television electioneering as being neither particularly good nor particularly bad for the democratic process.

Many proposals for improving the format of future debates have been offered. It has been suggested also that laws governing the debates be enacted to protect the participants. My view is that since the Kennedy-Nixon encounters were ground-breakers the debates in future campaigns should and probably will benefit from this initial experiment. But I doubt that any useful purpose can be served by passing laws. It is unlikely that they would be any more effective than those long on the books which ostensibly control campaign spending. Laws governing debates might well add up to nothing more than additional legal obstacles for one side or the other, or both, to find ways of circumventing. There are too many election-control laws of that kind already. I believe that the broadcasting industry, the Presidential candidates, and their campaign hierarchies will manage the situation very well, in view of the wisdom they usually display collectively.

Among changes in format for the next debates that they might consider are these: Have the first two or three encounters restricted to one or two overriding issues; reserve at least one of the joint appearances for the Vice-Presidential candidates, or perhaps have them appear with the Presidential candidates on one or two shows; hold the last debate a week or ten days before the election, and make it a no-holds-barred verbal contest between the candidates with no one in the middle. This could be the real debate of the series, with each contender permitted to ask his foe anything he wants to ask - and perhaps to confront him with "false charges" or anything of that sort which may need airing before the polls open.

Even with these changes the debates would still affect elections and the cause of better government only to a limited degree. The advent of public-address systems, trains, automobiles, radio, pollsters, news syndicates, and all kinds of communications media have brought many changes, better and worse, in campaign techniques.

In the 1960 post-election period Robert Kennedy, the President's brother and campaign manager, expressed doubt that the President would agree to debate his Republican opponent in 1964. When the President was asked at one of his earliest White House press conferences: "Could you tell us, to clear the air on this, whether if you are a candidate in 1964 you would agree to debate?" he replied: "I would, yes."

This was said three years and seven or eight months before the next campaign. I suspect that President Kennedy's decision when the time comes will depend on identity of his opponent, and that, more likely than not, he will manage to find the excuses not to debate that Richard Nixon failed to come up with in 1960. And I wouldn't blame him at all.

From An Occasional Paper on the Role of the Political Process in a Free Society published by The Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions, 1962; pp. 2-7.