JFK and TV

Good morning. It’s Wednesday, November 14, 2018. Fifty-nine years ago today, TV Guide published an essay written by an ambitious young U.S. senator from Massachusetts. The provocative piece would prove to be a predictive roadmap for future American political campaigns.

John F. Kennedy was a war hero who’d risen quickly through Boston politics and arrived on the national stage in the mid-1950s. With his good looks, sophisticated sense of style, and repute as a Lothario, Jack Kennedy seems to us today to have walked off the set of “Mad Men.”

Sen. Kennedy was writing for TV Guide just as television programming was demonstrating its tremendous sway on American popular culture — and as television news and television advertising were emerging as forces that would exert a gravitational pull on U.S. politics, especially the presidency.

Dwight Eisenhower, JFK noted in his article, reached more Americans in a 15-minute address on the Labor Reform Act delivered from the White House than Woodrow Wilson had in 40 speeches given on an arduous train trip that cost the 28th president his health. The democratizing effects on the conduct of campaigns were just beginning, Kennedy suggested.

In his November 14, 1959 exposition in TV Guide, John F. Kennedy observed that the transformational power of the television camera was already producing a generation of photogenic, and younger, faces in both political parties. He singled out two Republican governors, Nelson Rockefeller of New York and Oregon’s Mark Hatfield, along with a list of Democrats: Oklahoma Gov. J. Howard Edmondson, Alabama Gov. John Patterson (both elected in their 30s), Sens. Gale McGee of Wyoming and Phil Hart of Michigan — and even a mayor, Harold Grady of Baltimore.

“The searching eye of the television camera scrutinizes the candidates — and the way they are picked,” Kennedy noted. In an obvious nod to his ambitions concerning the 1960 Democratic convention, JFK added that the new technology made it harder for party bosses “to run roughshod over the voters’ wishes and hand-pick an unknown, unappealing or unpopular candidate in the traditional ‘smoke-filled room’ when millions of voters are watching, comparing and remembering.”

After he entered politics, Ronald Reagan — who in the “Mad Men” days was hosting the popular “General Electric Theater” TV show — would say that the camera “doesn’t lie.” Although we know this is not entirely true, in 1959 John F. Kennedy went even further. In his telling, the camera actually detected the innate distortions of big-hall oration techniques.

“The slick or bombastic orator, pounding the table and ringing the rafters, is not as welcome in the family living room as he was in the town square or party hall,” Kennedy wrote. “In the old days, many a seasoned politician counted among his most highly developed and useful talents his ability to dodge a reporter’s question, evade a ‘hot’ issue and avoid a definite stand. But today a vast viewing public is able to detect such deception and, in my opinion, willing to respect political honesty.”

Not wishing to besmirch the giants of the past, he took care to opine that Presidents Lincoln, Wilson, and both Roosevelts would have done just fine on television. Yet Kennedy did issue several warnings about mass communications.

“Political success on television is not, unfortunately, limited only to those who deserve it,” he asserted. “It is a medium which lends itself to manipulation, exploitation and gimmicks. It can be abused by demagogues, by appeals to emotion and prejudice and ignorance.” He doesn’t say whom he has in mind here, but one can guess.

Second, he proffered a warning to the voting public about campaign consultants who do more than present their candidates in a good light: Those consults shape them, too.

“Political campaigns can be actually taken over by the ‘public relations’ experts, who tell the candidate not only how to use TV but what to say, what to stand for and what ‘kind of person’ to be,” he cautioned. “Political shows, like quiz shows, can be fixed — and sometimes are.”

“The other great problem TV presents for politics is the item of financial cost,” Kennedy added in his third caveat about this new technological marvel. He noted that in the 1956 campaign, the Republican National Committee spent some $3 million for television, a number the Democratic National Committee nearly matched.

“If all candidates and parties are to have equal access to this essential and decisive campaign medium, without becoming deeply obligated to the big financial contributors from the worlds of business, labor or other major lobbies,” he wrote, “then the time has come when a solution must be found to this problem of TV costs.”

No solution to that problem was ever devised, and campaign costs have increased exponentially since then. Nearly six decades later, we are left with the last admonition in Jack Kennedy’s essay, and it was an appeal directly to the voting public.

“It is in your power to perceive deception, to shut off gimmickry, to reward honesty, to demand legislation where needed,” he wrote. “Without your approval, no TV show is worthwhile and no politician can exist.”

Carl M. Cannon
Washington Bureau chief, RealClearPolitics
@CarlCannon (Twitter)
ccannon@realclearpolitics.com

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