How The Media Seduced And Captured American Politics

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The presidential election of 1956 was essentially a rerun of the previous one, yet one episode demonstrated the increasing influence of television. With Stevenson’s renomination by the Democrats a certainty, the networks faced a four-day yawn from their viewers. Salvation suddenly appeared in a contest over the Vice-Presidency. With no obvious choice and with Stevenson himself undecided, three senators moved into contention: Estes Kefauver of Tennessee, Hubert Humphrey of Minnesota, and John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts.

Chicago was awash with whispers of deals being concocted in smoke-filled rooms to designate a running mate, and to sustain his reform image, Stevenson threw open the choice to the convention. Suddenly there was theater. Kefauver had a second chance; Humphrey got his first; and Kennedy seemed to have no chance at all. A big scoreboard behind the podium recorded the voting from the floor. The Kentucky Derby never generated more excitement. As state by state announced the results, the lead fluctuated. At the last moment Humphrey released his delegates to the Tennessean who had contested Stevenson in a dozen primaries. Afterward only historians would remember that Kefauver had won, but Kennedy’s performance gave the public its first impression of a man who would dominate his party—and the media—for almost a decade.

FOUR YEARS LATER another national election provided television with one of its greatest moments: the Nixon-Kennedy debates. It was a strange event, and it is hard to say who won. A reading of the transcripts today reveals no surprises. Each candidate expressed views already known; each circled and jabbed; but there were no knockdowns. Yet millions saw the relative newcomer under the most favorable of circumstances, and even though the contrast was sharper visually than intellectually, there was a vague general feeling that JFK had got the better of it.

 

In all, the new medium lived up both to its responsibilities and its possibilities. For the first time, it had brought two presidential candidates to the same podium. The proceedings were overly elaborate, but the handling of the event was scrupulously fair and nonpartisan. And afterward it would become increasingly hard for candidates, even incumbents, to avoid legitimate challenges on television.

The turbulence of the sixties can only be understood in the context of television’s ubiquity. It brought its first war, Vietnam, into the living room from ten thousand miles away; it showed us racial explosions across urban America; it covered the campus meetings that revealed the widest generation gap in American history; and it captured, in endless replays, the assassination of three of the country’s most popular political leaders. And viewers were also voters. The decade of turbulence scrambled old allegiances and rendered old labels meaningless.

THE YEAR 1968 was a tide without a turning. Nixon’s election ushered in a new era dominated by the paid commercial and an overall media strategy. Already what the press would call “image makers” or “media mavens” were on their way to becoming at least as important as campaign managers. Charles Guggenheim’s twenty-five-minute TV film “A Man From New York,” broadcast in the 1964 senatorial contest, purported to show that Robert Kennedy was not really from Massachusetts; four years later Guggenheim portrayed George McGovern as a bombardier in World War II to dispel the notion that he was a craven pacifist. More daringly, political manager David Garth ran John Lindsay for réélection in New York City with commercials in which the mayor admitted to endless small mistakes in office, the better to magnify presumed larger accomplishments.

Guggenheim and Garth were pioneers: the full media impact lay in the seventies, when it replaced more conventional activities. Its muscle was most obvious in determining the schedule of the candidate. Traditionally, managers had tried to get their stalwart in front of as many groups as possible. A heavy speaking schedule gave the candidate a chance to make his views known to a disparate electorate, and if the newspapers covered the meetings, so much the better.

Now, every effort focused on television. Instead of sessions with political groups, the object was a contrived “event.” The candidate showed up at a senior citizens’ center and delivered a brief statement drawn from some position paper. Television news deadlines determined the timing; the campaign coverage of the previous week determined the issue. As election day approached, two or three of what Daniel Boorstin has called “pseudo events” highlighted the day’s schedule. Nothing important was said, but the ninety-second exposure brought the candidate to the voter without the intercession of a party or political organization and showed him concerned about something that pollsters had discovered was on the public mind.

This direct appeal made parties increasingly superfluous. To be sure, they still had the critical line on the ballot; they still had enough registered members to make an endorsement worthwhile. But they were no longer the candidates’ principal sponsor. Indeed, they could seldom guarantee a crowd. When that was needed, a few media celebrities could draw a larger audience than a politician’s speech.