Debating the Great Debate

Debating the Great Debate

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.


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

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.

TV Technique

Harvey Wheeler

[The author, who teaches political science at Washington and Lee University, examines the Great Debate in the light of the special characteristics of the communications medium in which it took place.]

Lexington, Va.

REGARDLESS of what happens on Election Day, it will be almost impossible to determine the electoral effect of the TV debates between Kennedy and Nixon. If Nixon wins, there will be no way of measuring how the Great Debate affected his victory. If Kennedy wins, Nixon supporters are certain to credit the debates with a large responsibility for the victor. But the case will be hard to make unless Kennedy wins a large popular (not merely electoral college) landslide. Yet it is already apparent that this innovation will have extensive ramifications.

There is no such thing as a “neutral” medium of communication or exchange. Every different type of channel or conveyor imparts its own peculiar form to the material it conveys. The barbecue-Chautauqua favored the oratorical elder statesman and was especially susceptible to emotional and demagogic exploitation. Radio put a high premium on a pleasing voice and accent. Television is even more of a homogenizing mass medium. It has created its own symbolic language: certain shorthand stereotypes which carry a maximum audio-visual message at a minimum cost. Television is for this reason most efficient as a medium of communication when the material it is given has been pre-translated into its own peculiar symbolic language. The most deeply etched stereotypes of television are the “good guys” and the “bad guys”–the Jack Armstrong All-American Boy versus the shady trickster. Television concentrates the expression of these stereotypes on the face. There is little doubt that in his debate with Nixon, Kennedy has profited from his fortuitous facial correspondence with TV’s pre-established model of the “good guy.”

Moreover, television is a full-attention, leisure, relaxation medium. It sits you down; it requires that you have available leisure; it asks for your full attention. This means that television is intrinsically the medium of affluence and indolence–especially in the evening hours. Even the marginal worker becomes–figuratively–affluent and indolent as he takes his place before his set. Television converts its viewers into a white-collar audience, regardless of their non-television status.

The white-collar (or bureaucratic) class is superseding the laboring classes as the politician’s crucial electoral target. Already we know a great deal about the white-collar, bureaucratic man. He is other-directed and status-oriented. He has a characteristic set of fears and aspirations. From this standpoint, Nixon had every reason to expect that a TV debate with Kennedy would be to his advantage; he had television’s built-in white-collar bias going for him in the beginning. But it is hard to say that he maintained that advantage throughout the series.

The evidence already in from polls indicates that the unusually high number of “undecideds” was largely concentrated among the white-collar groups. And this is consistent with all we know of them. For all people, and for white-collar people in particular, a conviction about who is going to win has a determining influence on the decision on whom to be for. If Nixon had made a clearly superior impression in the first debate, it is quite likely that he would have reaped the potential advantage available to him from television’s white-collar bias. But the fact that he did not–the fact that he came through in the pre-established image of television’s “bad guy”–may have tended to atomize the distribution of the white-collar vote among the two parties.

TELEVISION has a built-in situational bias regarding style of delivery. The orator haranguing a partisan rally develops a special technique for that situation. It is a situation which responds to exaggeration and caricature. But when a TV debate like that between Kennedy and Nixon is staged, the audience has neither organic nor political homogeneity. There is no mass response to the speakers. The viewer, isolated and relaxed, is in intimate contact with each speaker by turns. It is the setting of a living-room conversation, not a mass rally. In such a setting all of the exaggerations which have a positive effect on a mass rally have a negative effect on the living-room viewer.

Nixon had long ago developed an effective oratorical technique for addressing mass partisan rallies. His great success with the “Checkers” speech probably deceived him into assuming that the same style was well adapted to a television debate. But the “Checkers” speech was over a moral issue, not policy questions. And in that speech he was by himself on television–unchallenged by opponent or reporters. Now, in the debate, the gestures which are necessary in at a mass rally appeared stagey and artificial; emotional issues which can be drummed into an organic audience of partisans seemed thin in an empty studio face to face with a pleasant Ivy-Leaguer with a hair-trigger mind. It is this entirely unexpected failure of previously invincible methods which probably accounts for the bewilderment and shock which Nixon and his supporters displayed after the first round. In the three following rounds, Nixon progressively adjusted his style to the specific situational bias created by the debates. But even at the end he was not master of the situation.

Kennedy on television was the fortuitous beneficiary of his oratorical defects. He is not an orator. He seems temperamentally unable to develop an emotional theme. He addresses a rally gestureless, inflectionless and at a rate of speech so rapid as to render his arguments unintelligible. Reporters who follow him are unanimous in their opinion that the masses who gather to hear him are at their highest pitch of enthusiasm before he starts to speak–with enthusiasm ebbing steadily to the end. However, the very characteristics which tell against him on the hustings worked to his advantage in his debates with Nixon. His unadorned style of delivery fitted well into the viewer’s living room. And although his rapid rate of speech prevented much of his content from being assimilated, what did come through was the picture of a bright, knowledgeable young man of great earnestness, energy and integrity.

In these first four debates, entirely accidental features in the styles of delivery of both men happened to favor Kennedy.

A Landmark?

Kenneth Rexroth

[ The last time Nation readers heard from Mr . Rexroth, poet, essayist and critic, he had decided to “Sit this one out” (see issue of Sept. 24).]

San Francisco, Calif.

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 bohème 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 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 Touré, 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 at 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.

ONCE IN a while the ugly facts of life do leak through the bland skin of Mad Alley–a kind of osmosis of the pressure groups. This usually is due to the fluff of an over-enthusiastic sideman, as they say in jazz. A notable instance is the Negro-in-the-Cabinet boner, a booby trap out of which all concerned backed with embarrassing haste. Another, and a rather startling one, is Matsu and Quemoy. I have never thought that Mr. Nixon stood a real chance, but if he had, this one error in salesmanship would probably have defeated him. James Reston and Drew Pearson may be more articulate than most people, but they are really pretty typical of the well-dressed, decently educated voter, no longer an insignificant minority. This episode has demonstrated pretty conclusively that there are pressures even more powerful than the smothering togetherness of Public Relations.

And, in this particular instance, the nature of those pressures is indisputable–the fortunately small minority of the unreconstructed war-hawks in the Pentagon and the very dirty money of the China Lobby. It is interesting to note the good sense of the common man’s response to the raising of this issue. The universal reaction has been that matters of global strategy, let alone what in this case, due to the small area involved, is really specific military tactics, is neither a fit nor a sensible subject for debate before the eyes and ears of the Chinese High Command. It is rather pitiful to watch the two ultra-smooth quiz kids try to bail out–each trying to get into the life raft first.

I think that, as far as public reaction is concerned, Senator Kennedy got over the side and away in the fourth round. It was interesting to watch the invitation to retraction. This may be the only spot in the whole show where simple truth was determinative.

The contrast between the radio broadcast and the visual presence on the TV screen was very sharply pointed up in the Polish question. I, for one, know perfectly well that the whole business had nothing to do with real international policy–it was just a play for the voter in Hamtramck and along Milwaukee Avenue. However, disembodied words roll by so fast that it is easy to misinterpret them in rebuttal–attention is just not so focused in radio. Faceless, the Vice President was able to put a policy of “roll back the Iron Curtain” into his opponent’s mouth. I doubt if this was as effective in the sharper image of television. Likewise, and even more so, this was true of the dispute about intervention in Cuba. The Saturday morning papers all carried outraged cries from conservative politicos all over Latin America who presumably had not seen, but only heard, the show. I talked to no “man on the street,” however simple, who saw the show and who took away the impression that Senator Kennedy had advocated military intervention.

Finally, although his handlers have certainly turned out a New Nixon, and overcome that fatal resemblance to Rudolf Hess, they have not succeeded in producing an “image,” to use current slang, to match the Senator’s air of passionate conviction, commitment and sweet ingenuousness. It may all be a show and it may all come out in the wash, but right now it is more convincing than ever was Charley Van Doren. The Vice President operates under one almost insuperable handicap. Did you ever take a baby into a whorehouse? All prostitutes are devoted wives and mothers at heart. As everyone knows, the higher up you go in the glass cheese boxes along Mad Alley, the less belief you find in the job. The brutal fact is, most of the Vice President’s engineers of opinion are going to vote against him. This certainly blurs the “image.”

ONE THING the show has not been able to overcome is the “lesser of two evils” attitude of the man on the street. My grocer is a young Lebanese, married to the daughter of a Near East statesman. He said, “All this foreign policy debate is so much wind. What the United States should do is give aid in kind–food, machinery, technical help–not in money. Nobody ever says that we are creating, all over the East, and probably in Africa, a class of criminals who run these governments and grow rich on American money while the people starve and turn Red. Look at Laos–look at Iran. I think I’ll vote for Kennedy; his bull last night was just a little bit closer to the facts.”

Across the street lives an entertainer whom I’ve known since she used to dance for the delectation of Studs Lonigan and his friends in the Golden Lily at Fifty-Fifth and the El. She said: “I never voted in my life. The less our people let them know what we’re thinking, the more scared they’ll be and the more likely they’ll do something. Look at that nonsense about Ralph Bunche in the Cabinet. Lodge no sooner got the words out of his mouth than he had to eat them. I sure am not voting for Johnson. Margaret Truman’s husband says he’s never voted in his life. He ought to know. What’s good enough for him is good enough for me.” So it goes.

The only enthusiasm I’ve met was at a rich and chic home in Pacific Heights where the A.D.A. had gathered for reassurance from “Arthur” that it was still really good ole Adlai who was running for President. They were all worried about the labor and Negro vote and advised Arthur to advise his friend to be a little more cautious. There wasn’t a single Negro or a single labor leader in the place, although, believe me, there are a number of quite rich and quite chic ones available. Still, there was a quiet, warm glow of tempered enthusiasm. That Man was still running–for his seventh term.

Another ‘Gimmick’

W.G. McLoughlin

[Mr. McLoughlin teaches history at Brown University, and as the author of Billy Graham: Revivalist in a Secular Age, knows a good deal about oratory.]

Providence, R.I.

I AM NOT impressed by the claims that the Great Debate technique has had a “revolutionary” or even a very significant new impact upon American Presidential campaigning. It seems to me that here is simply one more in a long line of technical devices which have modified, but not basically altered, our electioneering practices. Historically, this new use of television belongs in the same category with the changes wrought by the political use of the telegraph, the cheap daily newspaper, the railroad, the radio, the newsreel, the helicopter, the jet airplane and the straight television speech. The mere fact that the two men “confront” each other on the same platform (a confrontation more apparent than real) is by no means so dramatic an innovation as the first nation-wide radio speech or the first televised National Convention. Yet who would call these revolutionary?

As a matter of fact, the confrontations had more of the quality of an advertising gimmick than of a radical political departure. They were little more than a variation on the press conference and the televised interview. As might have been expected, both Nixon and Kennedy are sufficient masters of these question-and-answer games to find little difficulty in mastering this unimaginative combination of them. In fact, once the unrealistic, anticipatory excitement about the earth-shaking importance of the debates wore off, both candidates seemed to relish the chance to display their skill at this new parlor game. The measure of their ability, and of the artificiality of the device, was demonstrated by the repetitious nature of the answers to the questions. Before the debate was half over, I heard people saying in a tone of surprise, “But he said the same thing last time, and he used the very same words.” The debates added no new elements to the issues under discussion, and the candidates quickly reworked their campaign speeches into the simple answers required for a ninety-second rebuttal. Even when a soi-disant “new issue” like Quemoy and Matsu was raised, it soon became obscured in a mass of qualification, backtracking, contradiction and ad hominem quibbling.

IT IS EASY to blame the format or the questions for the disappointing results, but no juggling of either could change the fact that there are only so many debatable issues, there are only two candidates, and by the end of July there were only two sets of stock answers which would be given to any question. In the few cases when a question was put that was too pointed for a stock answer, the candidates could, and did, refuse to answer it (as in the case of their prospective Secretaries of State). Other delicate or difficult questions were fobbed off with statements about a major speech on that subject next week or a white paper to be issued later or a committee to be appointed to study the matter after election. Conversely, it is not surprising that two of the most complicated issues in the campaign, religion and civil rights, were not even mentioned in the four debates, for the obvious reason that panel members knew the candidates would merely bury them under an avalanche of pious platitudes.

If I may have my own fling at the question of format, I would suggest the presence of a moderator of sufficient intellectual stature and prestige–Walter Lippmann, say–who could lead the discussion in such a way as to push aside the platitudes and irrelevancies and lay before the public the complex realities of the issues under debate.

DESPITE their limitations , however, I am not advocating that debates of this kind should be abandoned, even in their present form. At least many more persons are now acquainted with the issues and the candidates than before, and also with the answers to the issues offered by both candidates. This is a gain, though not a revolutionary one–a gain, that is, provided you have faith in the power of the electorate to judge the candidates and their policies wisely. Many observers insist that “the peepul” are easily fooled by demagogues and pious frauds. They believe that the public votes for a film-image or a handsome face rather than for a Chief Executive of a great republic. I disagree. I have often been impressed by how shrewd the insight of the average American is into the personalities and policies of the respective candidates. I do not believe he is deceived by platitudes, or that he wants only a father-image to lull him into serenity. The intense public interest in the Great Debate is a tribute to the earnest desire of the American people to get as much information as they can in order to make the right choice In what they realize is a very important election. It is a pity that their interest was, on the whole, so poorly rewarded.

I do not share the fear that this kind of debate may bring forth comments on inflammable or internationally delicate issues which, diplomatically speaking, are better left unsaid. The Quemoy and Matsu issue was not new, and its discussion has not changed America’s position. To my mind there is more danger that the superficial answers of the debaters will soothe the public (which is better at judging men than ideas) into complacency over important issues than that they will excite the public to hysteria. This is especially true in view of how close the two candidates are in almost all their policies. After all, the Big Debate seems to be not about goals, but means. Indeed, this me-tooism is its most distressing aspect. But American political parties being what they are, it will probably always be a major part of our campaigns. In any case, whatever new technical devices our engineers and admen dream up will soon be mastered by the political professional and turned to his own uses. And ultimately, unless somebody produces an electronic device that will read minds, assess policies and evaluate character, the electorate will still have to make the crucial decisions on the basis of its own judgment.

Momentous Event

Don W. Kleine

[The author, winner of an Avery Hopwood fiction prize last year, teaches English at Cornell University. He has published a study of “personality” politics.]

Ithaca, N.Y.

IT IS hardly surprising that newsmen, themselves instances of the mass culture they help perpetuate, should have complained almost indignantly of how “dull” this campaign has been–as if a dull campaign were somehow a failure of the democratic process. Up till the first debate, the contest was low in entertainment value. Neither man charmed the heart like a Roosevelt, nor elicited anything resembling the tide of smug enthusiasm which swept Ike into office. And, as sheer entertainment, the debates have also proved tame fare. To be sure, the Vice President’s solemn arraignment of Truman’s profanity provided a moment of sardonic comedy. But otherwise, these historical meetings have been far from the blazing spectacles they might have been (and may some day be) with professional script and actors. Neither candidate unmasked the other as millions gasped and wept; there were no searing retorts, no icy rages; the exchanges did not even bristle much. It is as if the participants had tacitly agreed not to go too far, as if each knew how fearful the consequences of spontaneity might be. The Nixon-Kennedy debates were not, then, just that brisk pick-me-up the doctor ordered for a dull campaign. Theatrically speaking, they were failures. But their failure as theatre is one of the things that, to my view, places them among the truly astonishing and momentous events of our time.

Nixon and Kennedy are two of the most brilliant political personalities to emerge from the war. Within each is an uncannily efficient little engine, driving the man forward past all obstacles. For shrewdness and nerve, one could hardly imagine two opponents better matched: each is the apotheosis of the “new” species of leader. And, yet, despite their fascination with lighting and studio temperatures, these political geniuses impress upon one, from the first debate to the last, the amateurism of their presences. Especially in the first encounter, but also in subsequent sessions, each man is, within the framework of his abundant courage, scared half to death. Certainly neither is that creature whose emergence an age of mass communications had taught one to expect–the abominable showman, the unprincipled entertainer-politician coolly “projecting” a false “image” into the living-rooms of the naive masses. On television, Nixon’s deadpan image projects, if anything, graven; Kennedy, smoother in style, seems only a little more adept.

CONTRASTED with the real professionals of mass media, with suave Walter Cronkite for example, there is something touching about the candidates’ stances. An unintentional but (in such a context) unavoidable note of hectoring rings throughout the correspondents’ poised interrogations. The cameras are harsh toward the distinguished victims. Recurrently, the Vice President is surprised in attitudes of gloomy unease, as if he had blundered into the studio on the way to the washroom; the Senator is revealed at off-moments to be wincing, as if in pain. In short, the debates indicate that a political leader is not, after all, a professional entertainer, that the two vocations are not quite yet identical.

NevertheIess, the candidates are adventurers. It is appropriate that men not yet old have set the precedent. This willingness to play a game the counters of which are luck, grace and passion, and the stakes of which are nothing short of everything, implies, I think, the kind of intrepidity we associate with the young. For have the risks of any single campaign appearance ever been so high as in these debates?

TELEVISION, a medium for nuance, cruelly magnifies the amateur’s smallest untrue gesture. Nixon and Kennedy, both of whom have often appeared singly on this medium, were now addressing not only the mass audience but also that most dangerous audience of all, each other–and without rehearsed speeches. The hazards of presenting an ideological position in this framework are alarming. A false presentation–which is what an amateur’s attempt to project himself might involve–can discredit not only the candidate, but also (and quite unjustly) his approach to those questions of historical gravity which now face the nation. So the candidates’ air of gingerly constraint, and that absence from the debates of verbal fireworks which our television commentators –so eager to be amused–have so reproachfully noted, seem hardly surprising. What does seem remarkable is that the participants should have submitted themselves at all to this harrowing ordeal.

By submitting to the ordeal, however, both candidates have focused the issues of this election with high clarity. They have disclosed that, so long as our leaders remain amateurs, television, despite its dangers for the amateur, can render the national dialectic with unprecedented effectiveness. The debates were not entertaining, that is the nation’s luck. Yet, since they exacted of the candidates a courage nothing short of Presidential, their dramatic fascinations were immense. One will not soon forget how the fade which closed each session revealed each man at his podium pilloried in loneliness–will any of us ever be, in quite that way, quite that lonely?

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