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.
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 notice 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 boat 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. Nobody dares say this. 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 very 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.