Saturday, October 25, 2008

The beginning of election soap

The 1960 presidential campaign was marked by one novel development, the scheduling between September 26 and October 21 of a series of four nationally televised debates between the two candidates. Although the format for each session was precisely drawn, the debates did not serve to distinguish sharply the candidates' specific positions on the issues. The major differences that emerged during the debates and more generally during the campaign were those of style and personality. Kennedy stressed the need for more dynamic leadership to get the country moving again, extend the nation's international influence and improve the quality of life in America. Nixon, in contrast, emphasized his experience and ability to stand up to the Russians, sought to make an issue of his opponent's youth and wealth, and blamed the Democrats for inflation.

The television debates were not without significance. Television offered possibilities for a new political strategy. Brilliantly exploiting television's communication possibilities, Kennedy projected an image of efficiency, detailed knowledge, and vibrancy and recognized the distinction between scoring point and winning audiences (which Nixon did not because he was convinced of his superior debating skills). Not surprisingly, then, a Roper poll revealed that, of four million Americans who admitted having been influenced by the debates, three million voted for Kennedy. Television had made its mark and further transformed American politics by reducing the importance of issues and political philosophy and strengthening factors like personality, appearance, and projected image.

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