Standing In The Gap Of The Real And Perceived
1960 – John F. Kennedy vs. Richard Nixon
This is an episode in the series Sex For President, which considers the 2012 U.S. presidential race between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney in the historical context of previous U.S. presidential elections. To read more about the premise of Sex For President, read the first installment at https://americanparser.wordpress.com/2012/05/23/sex-for-president/
This is the one that started it all, the original beauty-before-age presidential contest. No more beards, no more baldies (unless Bruce Willis runs). In actual age, Kennedy was only four years younger than Nixon. But who was sexier?
Kennedy and Nixon had roughly concurrent congressional careers. Senator Kennedy had strong convictions but had not built a reputation during the 1950’s as an ideologue, as had Nixon as the lead prosecutor of the House Un-American Activities Committee. In addition to being perceived as more personable, Kennedy was taller, had a fuller head of hair, a less conspicuous nose, came from a legendary family, and sported a débutante wife. He seemed easygoing and optimistic by nature.
Nixon had a hardscrabble upbringing, and that is often a good thing in American politics. But the chip on his shoulder was every bit as visible as the silver spoon in Kennedy’s mouth. Next to Kennedy, Nixon looked like Willie Loman with a perpetual five o’clock shadow.
In adulthood as well, nothing came easy for Nixon. In everything he undertook, he seemed like an underdog, whether in his quest to marry Pat Ryan, his lost opportunity at the FBI, or his desperate campaign to retain his selection as Dwight Eisenhower’s running mate in 1952 under political fire. Life experience conditioned Nixon to assume a battle stance and a game face at all times. The U.S. presidential election season of 1960 was no exception. It was one of the closest presidential races in U.S. history, with Kennedy winning by only 112,000 of all ballots cast and a majority of electoral votes. But win Kennedy did.
Some would argue that in this close of a race, the decision was made in the minds of American voters with the introduction of televised debates to the campaign process. Even though polls suggested that Nixon was perceived as the winner of the first debate to those who listened on the radio, Kennedy was the overwhelming winner of that debate among television viewers. Having just been released from a hospital stay, Nixon looked pallid and thinner than usual, and he was, having lost weight in the hospital. As well, he appeared to be perspiring. In contrast, Kennedy looked fresh and youthful, having just returned from time in Southern California.
These debates confirmed a new reality: Image would from then on be everything in U.S. presidential politics. The presidential election of 2012, pitting Mitt Romney against Barack Obama, will tread no new ground. Nothing shapes image in the post-modern United States of America like sex appeal. Reality television was indeed born in this first aired debate, in 1960.
In our next installment on the way to the current election season of 2012, we will examine the effect of this phenomenon on the 1964 presidential race between Lyndon Johnson and Barry Goldwater.
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