It’s hard to win a presidential debate when you look like Rudolf Hess. That’s probably why Richard Nixon did much better against John F. Kennedy, among those who listened on the radio.
The great debate on the Great Debate has proven to be a lot more controversial than the Debate itself. There is a widespread feeling among journalists and other people in “communications” that it marks some sort of landmark. To mark the land in history you’ve got to have something remarkable. I have failed to notice any such in this instance. I have done a lot of inquiring-reporter scouting, and as far as I can find out, the man on the street feels the same way. The American Presidency does not represent a compact political group of any sort, but a coalition. Even the Roosevelt campaigns were struggles for an “uncommitted center.” This quadrennial sales pitch offering the same enticements to the same potential buyers has a habit of overreaching itself. In the Willkie-Roosevelt contest, Wendell Willkie became more Rooseveltian than his opponent, and vice versa. After it was all over, Willkie summed it up: “campaign oratory.” Since the Kellogg and Post patents expired, it has become impossible to tell one brand of corn flakes from the other. They are sold by appeals to outside interests which have nothing to do with nutriment—space cadets, rocketry, international adventure, the frontiers of science, romances of the American past, the curious folkways of outlandish peoples, all can be found on the side of the box, in six colors, any morning at breakfast. So with the Great Debate for the American Presidency—these are precisely the things that the boys have been debating.
Since any “firm” (as they say in Mad Alley) commitment to any important issue whatever would alienate some section of the uncommitted center—important, I mean, to their own lives, here and now, before their faces, like the bowl of breakfast food—these things, by mutual agreement of the PR men on both sides, are utterly taboo. A dignified soft sell, “Don’t worry, you’re safe, whichever of us wins,” but with it just the faintest glitter of the three lures which long experience has proven most attractive to children—candy, sex and bloodshed, coupled with a forthright opposition to Sin. Every vote of a member of the Teamsters and the United Auto Workers counts, and every vote of every Northern liberal and Southern Bourbon, every cattle baron, every fly-by-night sawmill operator, every conservationist, every Taos boheme with her head full of Theosophical Indianism. About the only people automatically eliminated are the Negro pseudo-Moslems, the Prohibitionists and—guess who—the avowed members of the Communist Party. Both candidates are running full tilt against Fidel Castro and Nikita Khrushchev. Possibly, if these two gentlemen had not made such fools of themselves on television, there wouldn’t have been any opponents available at all.
This brings up the one small demonstrable merit of the show. As time goes on, television may well purge American politics of gross ill manners. I know a number of MPs socially. In my life, I have met hardly any members of the House of Representatives I would care to invite into my home. Television destroyed Senator Joe McCarthy. It seems to be far crueler than the naked eye. Mr. Khrushchev’s effect on Mr. Seke Toure, sitting alone in his hotel room, seems to have been far more shocking than the Soviet Premier’s actual presence in the Assembly, and may well have changed history. I don’t think there is any question but that it would be impossible today to run, much less elect, a gross buffoon, a ruffian, or even a boozy, good-natured rascal. The days of Warren Gamaliel Harding are gone forever. As Mr. Riesman’s revolution seeps down through the base of the social pyramid, only Manhattan and the piney woods will still accept the ill-bred politician. Mr. Nixon and Mr. Kennedy are perfectly Other Directed, and they’d jolly well better be. In fact, their advisers have pushed this realization to the point where, in their Great Debate, they have spent most of their time other-directing each other. It has been an exercise in the one-upmanship of high-toned conformity.