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Debating the Great Debate | The Nation

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Debating the Great Debate

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Despite the cynics, the Presidential campaign seems to have turned up a genuine issue after all: Who Won the Great Debate and Was It a Good Idea in the First Place? Certainly no other issue in the campaign has aroused so much popular passion--and not only among Americans. And oddly, public interest centers at least as much on the debate itself--an innovation in campaign techniques--as on its possible effects on the election.
   So it is on the debate, and not on its possible result (difficult to assess even after the returns are in), that we asked the contributors to the following symposium to address themselves. It's no good asking us on what basis we chose the contributors; there was no principle involved, scientific or otherwise. Our contributors have this much in common, and very little else: they are all Americans, they are all intelligent, and they were all watching their TV screens at the appropriate times.
   --The Editors

This essay, from the November 11, 1960 issue of The Nation, is a special selection from The Nation Digital Archive. If you want to read everything The Nation has ever published on presidential politics, click here for information on how to acquire individual access to the Archive--an electronic database of every Nation article since 1865.

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Asking for a Job


Alan Harrington


[Mr. Harrington, whose Life in the Crystal Palace was an interesting analysis of the white-collar worker in a large corporation, sees the Great Debate as a kind of "personnel interview" for the biggest job in the country.]

New York City

THE JOINT appearance of Senator Kennedy and Vice President Nixon on television may be imagined as the first great, nation-wide personnel interview in our history. We have an Executive vacancy that must be filled. Two men have beaten out all other applicants for the job. Now, we must make the final choice between them. Their qualification records are before us, and so are their scores on various tests of excellence that interested authorities have devised. There remains the significant, intuitive relationship that must be established between members of the hiring committee (in this instance, millions of us) and the job applicants. This is especially important when we are choosing a man for leadership of a big enterprise like a country--when mismanagement in the next four years can contribute to world bankruptcy.

For the first time since our country came into being, virtually everyone has had the chance to watch the candidates--if not in the flesh at least in close-ups larger-than-life--under merciless conditions in which the smallest fumble, mumble, hint of hesitation or drop of perspiration is instantly magnified and placed on the record beyond hope of denial.

In dual loneliness, Kennedy and Nixon have to deal with us. The TV cameras enable us to look across our desks at the calm fidgeting applicant and see his mettle tested. We can see him, in effect, heckled, even if the heckling has turned out to be mild. We see Kennedy and Nixon placed under conditions of stress, the way the personnel people like to do it, and observe how the applicants think on their feet. (I think where job-testing for positions in private industry is concerned, putting applicants under stress, or artificial stress, can often be incompatible with a regard for human dignity. Since Kennedy and Nixon are public men, we may ask them to stand up to this sort of thing.)

Until this year, most of the electorate has had to judge the Presidential candidates' fitness by hearsay, press reports, the sound of a radio voice, or their TV appearance under controlled circumstances. A political speech made before an admiring audience that will surely applaud the candidate, or a cozy chat issuing from his library, has never given us an approximation of the whole man. Now, thanks to the Kennedy-Nixon TV confrontations, we are appreciably closer to the valid, intuitive "take," the wholly human--even though sometimes mistaken--feeling we have about someone whom we are going to accept or reject for a job.

Of course, the candidates knew this and therefore they projected themselves in a conservative fashion. Since neither cared to take the risk of spoiling their images, they refrained from entertaining us with any bold ideas about running the country. We longed for a surprise, a few laughs, a leap of imagination. Nobody thought to suggest, as someone did just the other day, that we abandon Quemoy and defend Matsu.

Admit, then, that no great intellectual advances were scored during these TV debates. Acknowledge that important issues were not clarified. The individual natures of the men involved were clarified, it seems to me, in small but telling ways. In the political pit of the TV studio, the man under tremendous pressure, with a nation of eyes looking at him, must reveal parts of his nature unintentionally when his opponent attacks. I think this is true whether the attack is rough or relatively decorous.

Both candidates showed themselves to be extraordinarily quick-witted in face-to-face confrontation. They can speak English. I felt that both demonstrated toughness. This is important, since the new President will have to keep his head when big fists are hammered on the table in front of him--real, physical fists. The TV debates did not change this voter's feeling about Nixon. But Kennedy came across to me as a great deal bigger, stronger and more mature person than I had guessed. The electronic impression: "He can handle himself." That's all that's new, but enough to make one TV observer want very much to vote for him, as opposed ( a month or so ago) to deciding not to vote at all.

From this living room, the debates appeared to be a wonderful idea, most welcome. Did they say nothing to you? Then you can, in good conscience, refuse to endorse either candidate.

Imagine such a debate taking place eight years ago between candidates Eisenhower and Taft, and later Eisenhower and Stevenson. Would history have been changed? One thing is likely--if TV debates of this kind become a matter of American political custom, all future Presidents of the United States, whatever their principles, will at any rate be quick and articulate men.

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