Hoffman was staff director of the Center for the Study
of Democratic Institutions' study of the political process.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.