One of those fell 56 years ago this week, on September 26, 1960. John F Kennedy, a young, Catholic and relatively unknown Irish-American — each characteristic a disadvantage — engaged Richard Nixon in the first televised debate between American presidential candidates. Conventional wisdom believes Kennedy secured the presidency that evening more by his persona and performance than his policies.
Nixon was underweight, seemed sickly, sweaty, shifty, and needed a shave. Kennedy was calm and confident. Just hours earlier had worked on his tan basking on a hotel roof. His smile was film-star radiant and he was impeccably dressed. Those who followed the debate on radio thought Nixon had won but technology had disenfranchised them. They were in a minority. By then 88% of American homes had televisions — up from 11% in a decade — and the great majority of the estimated 74m who watched rather than listened believed Kennedy the clear winner. The impact was immediate. The following day, at a rally in Ohio, the crowds cheering JFK’s motorcade were bigger than any seen previously. The rest is American, and ultimately our, history.
We do not have to reach across six decades, or even one, to see how television can have a decisive role in a presidential election. Our presidential election of 2011, the 13th, was contested by a record seven candidates and just before the final television debate of the campaign independent Seán Gallagher led the opinion polls. However, his campaign imploded when he was forced to admit on live television that he collected a €5,000 cheque for a Fianna Fáil fundraiser event from a man described as a “convicted criminal and fuel smuggler”.
Though impossible to prove it is possible to argue that without that dramatic, live-on-air intervention the Higgins’ presidency, our ninth and one that has been such a success, might never have been. Whose interests did that intervention serve? Was our democracy strengthened or undermined?
On Monday night the next president of America confronted their main rival for the office — still the most powerful in the world. Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump faced each other at Hofstra University in New York and the debate was watched by tens of millions. Clinton showed composure and remained calm despite Trump’s goading insults that, as well as his incredibly poor grasp of facts, have defined him as a pantomime candidate. That, however, may be an irrelevance. When America goes to the polls in just over 40 days will they see Trump as a dangerous, bullying buffoon or a champion? Or, will they see Clinton as an inexplicably ambitious careerist of questionable integrity but tolerable? How will they decide?
Once upon a time apex leaders were identified by birth, regicide or revolution — sometimes by all three. That process was rejected by democracy but can we really say selecting leaders by something ever closer to a reality TV circus is any better or more conducive to a good, life-enhancing result?