Marshall McLuhan, first Media Ecologist, shared his most probing and relevant insights on the political effects of America’s first TV presidential debate in 1960 between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon. And in my view there are still lessons which our British friends can learn as they wend their way through the labyrinthine ways of the medium of television debates.
In his book, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, McLuhan pointed out in 1964 that the cool and blurry and shaggy texture of JFK won hands down in the debates over the sharp intense image of Nixon. McLuhan castigates Theodore White in his analysis of the TV debates in his book, The Making of the President 1960. White seemed more interested in the content of the debates which McLuhan said meant little in the new medium of TV. White gave the win to Nixon because he gave more content than Kennedy. JFK, the cool personality, looked more comfortable and at ease, more presidential than the hot personality of Nixon. Nixon looked like a politician, and folks felt there was something there they did not trust when they saw him. On TV anyone whose appearance strongly declares his role or status in life is wrong for TV. Nixon’s hot and nervous content meant little on TV. Kennedy, undefined, did not look like a rich man, a teacher, or a doctor which is great on TV.
And Kennedy looked at the camera while Nixon looked at Kennedy. JFK knew he could look at Nixon all night and he would never get his vote. JFK looked at the voters in TV land and his forelock slipping down over his forehead asked every mother and daughter in America to help him brush that curl back. “Let me help you brush that lock back, Jack.” I could hear the votes clicking off for him in the precincts across America as I watched those debates. Nixon’s too closely cropped haircut, the clean cut American look, and his sweating nervously did not play well on TV. He was too high definition. JFK, at ease with his TV image, was not too precise, and Nixon fidgeted and appeared uncomfortable with his TV image. JFK was not too ready of speech as to spoil his pleasantly tweedy blur of countenance and outline. Tanned and relaxed from a weekend at the Kennedy Compound in Cape Cod, JFK looked great on TV even in black and white. Nixon refused to allow any makeup to color his sickly and flapping jowls. He came across as very pale and sickly (which he was) and weak, eager to fill up time with content which is not effective on TV. Kennedy’s cool humor helped him go from palace to log cabin, from wealth to the White House in a pattern of TV reversal and upset.
Everyone agrees the TV debates put Kennedy over the top in the campaign.
So as British politicians learn not to be too content oriented on their TV exchanges, as they try to be cool and blurry for their TV viewers, and as they try to remember to look at the voters and the cameras, McLuhan speaks eloquently to us and them on how to use TV to best advantage trying to get votes with fur and fuzz and blur and buzz.