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THE GREAT DEBATE
by Hallock Hoffman
Hallock Hoffman was staff director of the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions' study of the political process.

THE sense of intimate familiarity with the persons one sees on television seems to restore one-half of a relationship that used to prevail in politics in the United States. The theory of consent implicit in the Con-stitution assumes that voters make their choices of office-holders from among men they can meet face-to-face. Some of the electoral devices that seem cumbersome to us now were reasonable enough when the country was getting rid of its king.

The idea of The People was no philosophical abstrac-tion for the Founding Fathers, as it tends to be for us; the citizens were to be acquainted with the men who would serve as their temporary rulers. They were not asked to cast a vote for anyone they could not hope to meet in person. Thus Senators were to be elected by the more populous house of the State legislature, because all the citizens (in reality, the small group of white, male property-owners) could be expected to know the member of the State Assembly from their own districts, but not necessarily the Senatorial candidate. The President was to be chosen by electors, who were subject to local elec-tion.

For the most part, face-to-face democracy disappeared a long while ago. Now, suddenly, the television camera takes our eyes and ears into the presence of candidates even for the Presidency, and we see at close range the sort of office-seeker we used to catch a glimpse of, if we were lucky, on the back platform of a train.

But the restoration of the face-to-face situation is apparent, not real. The voters can inspect the candidates with remarkable-though carefully contrived and con-trolled-intimacy. But the candidates cannot get any view of the voters at all. For them television campaign-ing is a conversation in which they never hear the an-swers to their questions, and never see the persons they are talking to. So candidates construct images of the public which they hold in their minds while they are talking; they depend heavily on their technical advisers for assistance in making up these abstract profiles of their auditors. Using such ideas of what the public is, the can-didates and their advisers try to figure out how a candi-date attractive to that public should look and sound.

So we have democracy face-to-camera, instead of face-to-face. The TV receiver cannot tell the shape of the face that is looking at it; and the viewer cannot tell who shaped the face he views. Bad as it is, indirect and insufficient as a system of communication, television is probably better than no television. But it has a profound effect upon the practice of politics.

By the end of the Great Television Debates of the Presidential campaign of 1960 everybody was saying that television encounters between Presidential candi-dates had become fixed into the American political tra-dition. No future campaign, it was said, could he conducted without televised meetings between the candi-dates of the major parties.

As every television viewer knows, television induces an intimate and personal experience among those who watch it. The audience, however vast in number, consists of small groups of people, who are watching mainly in their homes. An intelligent candidate does not walk into a man's living room and shout at him; and so he talks on television as if he were sitting opposite his hearer in the presence of a few members of his family. He looks the camera in the eye. Even when he is address-ing a live audience in a studio or auditorium, the candidate skilled in the demands of television ignores that group in favor of the electronic group.

Kennedy and Nixon showed their appreciation of tele-vision by their conduct at the 1960 national party Con-ventions. Unlike the keynote speakers, both of whom had been distracted by the bodies before them into be-lieving that they were speaking to the persons in the convention halls, the Presidential nominees looked at the cameras and spoke to their real but unseen viewers. Nixon forgot the television audience only once: in the lobby of the Ambassador Hotel on election night, when he had to announce that Mr. Kennedy would win the election if the trend continued, and that meanwhile he was going to bed. Then, and only then, was he unable to ignore the crowd of cheering Republicans before him. For the first time he looked to his television audience like a leader who had lost control.

THE television debates became occasions, for both candidates, in which the effort was to avoid offend-ing any substantial group of voters, and the hope was to appear personally attractive to everybody. Television is peculiarly fit as a medium for selling personality; it seems, so far, unfit for much else. Whether this is a result of our having devoted the medium almost solely to en-tertainment, or is an inherent defect, remains to be dis-covered in the future. It is a fact of the present, and one that colored deeply the actions and designs of the candi-dates in the 1960 election.

For the practice of politics, this total personalizing of campaigns is a disaster. It empties politics eliminates the few distinctions that remain between the parties and their programs, and removes political dis-cussion from reality. For the detached observer, the out-standing quality of the 1960 television campaign was its absence of attention to any of the new and important facts about the world. Neither the arms race, nor technology, nor the population explosion, nor the situation of a rich white minority in an arming colored world, nor the uncontrolled exploitation of our natural resources, nor the irrelevancy of our economic policies was argued about during the television discussions. What was said about such matters was said before small audiences in single localities, where the candidates could gauge the possible losses in popularity by ascertaining the biases of their audiences before they spoke.

Television campaigning requires candidates to address themselves to the whole mass of the electorate-or, at least, to run the risk of addressing the whole mass, if they should happen to tune in-at a single moment. As the sellers of breakfast food have discovered, there is little that is safe to say to everybody all at once; and the candidates were well aware of this hazard of tele-com-munication. In other words, the trouble with politics con-ducted by such a mass medium is that the medium is too massive. Debate implies an effort to persuade a group of listeners of a point of view defended on the basis of facts held in common; a debater wins by organizing information available to his opponent and his audience in such a way that it demonstrates the superiority of his conclusions. Persuasion based upon alleged and unverified facts is manipulation, not education.

The mass audience does not know enough about modern American government to listen intelligently to a debate about it. What the mass of people know is how they are faring in their own lives. The connections between their lives and the complex activities of agencies of government can be discerned but dimly, and ordinary men, busy with getting and spending and entertaining themselves, are rarely driven even to wondering about them. Questions about "the flight of gold," or G.N.P., or the depletion allowance for oil-well owners have no meaning for most voters. It was impossible for Kennedy and Nixon to debate such questions; instead, they sought to impress their viewers by the way they seemed to answer the questions. Such questions, in any case, do not allow three-minute answers (the exception may have been, "Do you think Mr. Truman's profanity is a good thing?"). It is hard to speak truth about complex matters briefly; partial statements are almost always false or misleading.

The difficulty is only in part the result of the format of the television debates. It is also ascribable to our training as members of television audiences. The journalists who "spoke for the public" asked, not about great issues of public policy, but the kind of questions that provoke catchy leads for stories. The aim was not information, but attention and sensation. A different format might have produced a different result. But regardless of the format, the candidates might have felt forced to look for platitudes that they could deliver in telegraphic style. For we have all become conditioned by the producers of television entertainment to expect quick variety and excitement, little thoughts in little packets. As it was, about one-third of the audience turned off the Great Debates before each hour was over; more serious discussion would probably have bored an even larger number.

PARTLY as a result of our conditioning as an audience, the candidates were not equally effective before the camera: Kennedy is more appealing, more likable, has more charisma. This fact has little to do with his being a better President; but it bears on a possible development of his conduct in office. For Kennedy and his advisers have discovered how useful television can be to a man who knows how to take advantage of it. The Kennedy Presidency may remind future historians more of the pre-Convention Kennedy campaign for the nomination than of his campaign for election. Before he was nominated, Kennedy's organization was entirely his own. He and his immediate associates had put it together; they knew what they wanted each department to accomplish; on the whole, they did what they intended to do, at the time they intended to do it.

It is already clear that Kennedy will use television skillfully as President. When he needs to go over the heads of the press or Congress to the people, he will bring television not only to his press conferences but to other carefully chosen public platforms. Unlike Eisenhower, Kennedy will try to run the government. Partly because of his determination to be an active President, and partly because of his effectiveness on television, Mr. Kennedy will, more than any leader in the recent past, tell us not only what policies he thinks are right for us, but also what attitudes and beliefs he wants us to adopt. In his hands, television will become an active tool of Presidential politics, administration, and mobilization of public opinion.

We may expect that by 1964 President Kennedy will be almost as familiar as the men and women with highest ratings on evening entertainment shows. His exposures to the television audience will have been self-conscious; his "image" will have been controlled. He will come to know, better than any political personage before him, exactly how to manage the medium to his advantage. He will be a formidable candidate in 1964 because of his mastery of television, if for no other reason.

By 1964 three major changes in television may be well along. First, color will be more common. As long as black-and-white television remains an effective medium for selling, it will dominate the field. But the signs of boredom can already be detected in the response of audiences to programs and products. Second, educational television will have begun to take the place it has been struggling so long to achieve. Educational television stations may be charging subscribers for program materials and will therefore be partially supported by their listeners, but the main cost will be borne by government. The result should be a variety and depth of programming we have not seen to date. At least some of us will have become accustomed to television as a teaching medium. There may even come to be a whole new generation of voters with responses based on their audio-visual educational experiences rather than on "Maverick." For this group, the "good-guy" image of the political candidate, instead of being the fearless cowboy of 1960, may have to look like a college professor.

Third, there should be more television stations, with a shift toward UHF. Instead of seven channels, there may be thirty available in populous areas. And if the satellite reflectors for long-range transmission of line-of-sight frequency signals are in flight, transcontinental reception of telecasts will be standard.

In this new environment of color, more stations, and more serious educational television, what will be Presi-dent Kennedy's answer to his challenger in the election of 1964?

It is unlikely that any Presidential candidate-incum-bent or not-will be able to withstand the public pres-sure to expose himself to the voters in the presence of his opponent. There will be great political risks. A Republican challenger in 1964 will have the strategic advantages Mr. Kennedy possessed in 1960. Mr. Kennedy will have to run on his record; his opponent will be free of the restraints of office. Mr. Kennedy will ele-vate his opponent by appearing with him. What is more crucial, the 1964 appearances, like those in 1960, will tend to equalize the familiarity of the voters with both candidates. The Republican will be given a television audience he could not otherwise command.

The same factors that elected Mr. Kennedy in 1960 will influence the nomination of the 1964 Republican candidate. No major party will henceforward nominate a candidate who does not "sell" on television. A state party chairman, in fact, has already suggested that aspirants for nomination will make TV tape recordings to show the degree of their appeal and the politicians will then study the tapes to help decide whom they will nominate.

However, as with the Republicans in 1960, it is not certain that the two parties will be equally acute in judg-ing what will "sell" in 1964. The skill that will be devoted to assessing the television capabilities of the candidates in the future will be greater. And since the environment of television changes-the kinds of programs that are popular vary according to uncharted tides of national emotion-the kind of candidate who will appear favor-ably against the backdrop of the entertainment shows will vary also.

THE four 1960 television encounters between Nixon and Kennedy occupied so much of the political attention of the electorate that there was little left for local affairs. The statistics of the recent election have been misread by those who claim that the widespread ticket-splitting demonstrated a new alertness on the part of the American electorate. There is, of course, some evidence of a more informed and attentive audience for politics in 1960 compared with previous years. A larger portion of the electorate had college degrees, a higher percentage had high school diplomas, more books were sold, more "serious" television and motion pictures and even newspapers had become available. But the changes brought about by these developments were small. They do not explain a sudden tendency on the part of 25 per cent of the voters to split their ballots.

Other explanations are more probable. First, the par-ties have declined even further in their hold on voters. This decline in traditional voting has accelerated as the mass media-and, this time, television overwhelmingly- converted the candidates from party personages into per-sonalities. Unlike Stevenson and Eisenhower, Kennedy and Nixon moved into television as a medium worthy in itself, which put them into competition with the enter-tainers who dominate the medium. They sought to be liked by their audiences according to the same traits of personality and action. They gave their devotion not to genuine political discussion but to popularity. Most per-sons who watched the shows could recall almost no political issues at all; but they knew whether they liked the candidates.

With so high a share of the political attention of the voters focused on the national election because of the Great Debates, and that attention diverted from politics by the character of the debates, the electorate seems to have said, "We will choose our man for President and leave everything else as is." For the great fact about the ticket-splitting is that voters almost invariably returned incumbents to office. Incumbents won a high percentage of elections at almost every governmental level. With little attention left to give to lesser campaigns, the voters seem to have concluded that the only safe way to deal with unknown candidates was to vote for the man who had previously held the office.

IF these various deductions are correct, the final effect of the first Great Debates on popular government in the United States is depressing. They constituted a new means of giving an enormous part of the electorate a close view of the candidates for the highest office in the land. They did so at a cost of draining off the low politi-cal interest of the citizens into a non-political, personal popularity contest. We can look forward to an increasing detachment of citizens from political affairs unless we learn how to use more wisely the great new medium of visual communication that our technology and produc-tive enterprise have given us.

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. 10-14.