1960 Presidential Race Marked beginning of Television as Premier Political Medium

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Steve Flowers

By Steve Flowers

The 1960 Presidential Race between Richard Nixon and John Kennedy is considered by many political historians to be a landmark presidential contest. This race for the White House, exactly 60 years ago, marked a pivotal change in presidential election politics when the advent of television became the premier medium for political candidates.

John Kennedy was a 42-year-old, charismatic, democratic senator from Massachusetts. Richard Nixon was a veteran politico who was vice president under the popular war hero President and General Dwight “Ike” Eisenhower.

The presidential debate between Democrat Kennedy and Republican Nixon was to be televised nationwide. This was the first televised presidential debate. Television was a new phenomenon.

Kennedy understood the importance of the debate and the new medium of television. He took a full week off the campaign trail and went to the Kennedy compound in Hyannis Port and studied and prepared and was rested and tanned.

Nixon, on the other hand, campaigned nonstop, 18 hours a day up until the telecast. He was tired-looking and suffering from painful phlebitis. When he arrived at the NBC studios for the debate, he bumped his bad leg on the car door, and it flared up the phlebitis. He was in severe pain when he took the stage. However, the worst things he did were failing to shave and refusing makeup. He had a heavy five o’clock shadow. In fact, he had not shaved since five o’clock that morning. He appeared tired and haggard. It made him look very sinister. He glared menacingly into the camera and at Kennedy. In short, he was awful.

Nixon was used to radio, and in fact those who listened to the debate on radio thought Nixon won. However, those who watched on TV thought differently. Kennedy was tanned, relaxed, smiling and was handsome and charismatic. Kennedy won the election that night. The televised debate was the key. Therefore, 1960 marks the beginning of television being the way and means to victory in an election.

Folks, I am here to tell you it has not changed. Television is still the medium that drives the vote. It has been rumored and stated as fact that social media has taken over. But it has not yet.

There is a known fact in politics that older people vote. That has not changed. It is folks my age, 60 or over, who vote and elect people. Young people under 40 simply do not vote. They really do not have time to vote in that stage of life. The typical under-40 American is trying to raise a family, build a career and get children to soccer games or dance class after an eight-hour workday and then get dinner on the table.

There are very few 25-year-old millennials who vote. They get their information off social media, but it does not translate into voting. Most of them are not even registered, know where they go to get registered or much less where their polling place is. We older people still watch TV and we vote.

This fact is confirmed as I peruse and study the campaign finance filings of the candidates running for office in Alabama this year. All the major winning candidates for all the viable and primary races for U.S. Senate or Congress spent the bulk of their campaign money on television.

Looking back at the 1960 Presidential Race and comparing it to this year’s contest reveals a stark transition in presidential politics. The electoral college system at that time had 40 states in play and 10 states that were safe Republican or Democratic enclaves.

Today, it is just the opposite. There are 40 states that are predetermined to be safely solid either Republican states or Democratic states. You might say the hay is in the barn in at least 40 of our United States. If Mickey Mouse were the Republican nominee, he could carry Alabama, as I often say; and if Donald Duck were the Democratic candidate, he would carry California.

Our country is divided politically like never before along partisan lines. It is almost 50/50. Therefore, the key to victory is inspiring and firing up your base to vote.

If enthusiasm is any indication, then the needle is moving toward Donald Trump and the Republicans, although the addition of Senator Kamala Harris to the Democratic ticket may enthuse African American female voters, who are the base of the Democratic Party.

See you next week.

Steve Flowers is Alabama’s leading political columnist. His weekly column appears in over 60 Alabama newspapers. He served 16 years in the state legislature. Steve may be reached at www.steveflowers.us.

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