Today marks the 57th anniversary of John Kennedy and Richard Nixon’s third of four televised debates. It’s an insignificant anniversary, yes, but deserves revisiting in the wake of Donald Trump’s victory over Hillary Clinton last year.
As you may recall, the JFK/RMN debates were the first to be broadcast over the airwaves, and and they instantly turned the race into one as much about appearance as values. It became about Kennedy’s litheness versus stiff Dick; about vibrant and energetic youth versus sweaty and sluggish age. While beleaguered and sickly-looking Nixon tried to gussy up after the first round — he gained a bit of weight to look more robust and poured on makeup to fight father time— his public image never recovered. And, yes, it mattered.
Kennedy was down by a point prior to the first debate, but was up by three after the first and up by four after this third match, according to Gallup. (There was no such polling after the fourth and final debate.) Later, after Kennedy won the White House, 6% of voters said the debates were the sole determinant behind their pro-JFK stance.
One would think the same dynamics would be at play during last year’s debates: Clinton was far more optimistic and bright than doom and gloom Trump, both in rhetoric and look, this was especially after he stalked her around the stage during their second face-off, acting, quite literally, like a lurking ogre. One would think American voters would feel more at ease pulling the proverbial lever for a smiling candidate rather than a storm cloud of a man. We of course know that’s not the case.
Looks matter, yes, but sexism’s apparently far more powerful than superficiality. But maybe that will change in future generations….