Pádraig Hoare: How US presidential races of the past shaped America

In this US presidential election year, the ‘Irish Examiner’ looks at past races and how they shaped the nation. In the first part of the series, Pádraig Hoare examines the impact oftechnology — and in particular mass media — on elections and their outcomes
Pádraig Hoare: How US presidential races of the past shaped America

In this US presidential election year, the ‘Irish Examiner’ looks at past races and how they shaped the nation. In the first part of the series, Pádraig Hoare examines the impact of technology — and in particular mass media — on elections and their outcomes

Using Twitter and morning talk shows to bludgeon, insult, and obfuscate his way to the US presidency propelled Donald Trump into the most powerful position in the Free World in 2016.

He may have debased the process through mendacity and negative campaigning, but he wouldn’t be the first to have utilised the latest technology available to do so.

Long before Donald Trump rode down the escalator in Trump Tower in a garish and lampooned announcement that he would run for president of the US in June 2015, politicians with ambitions to govern from the White House spotted the trends and took advantage of new mediums of communication and technology.

THE POWER OF RADIO

Franklin Delano Roosevelt: 32nd President of the United States, 1933-1945

The only thing we have to fear is fear itself. The soundbite delivered by the so-called traitor to his class, Franklin D Roosevelt is the epitome of how he used the relatively new phenomenon of radio to communicate to the masses during the era of the Great Depression and the Second World War.

‘The Democrat traitor to his class’ label was one he embraced with gusto.

Franklin D Roosevelt
Franklin D Roosevelt

His upbringing dripping with privilege in Hudson Valley, FDR became a champion of the underprivileged and downtrodden, weary from the greed and mistakes of the ruling classes that had led to the Great Depression of the 1930s.

A quarter of the population was unemployed, and his predecessor, Republican Herbert Hoover, had believed the free market and private sector would correct the terrible course the country was on. FDR did not share that vision.

FDR turned to the radio to communicate with the people the course of actions he believed would set the US on the road to recovery.

His ‘fireside chats’, as they would affectionately become known, bypassed the news media favoured by the establishment and went straight to the heart of the American people.

These chats were a medium to convey to the people how the federal government would put people back to work, save the collapsed banking system and mandate social safety nets for the underprivileged.

In his second fireside chat in 1933, he spoke with a humility and hope that resonated with people, setting a course for the New Deal that would transform the American way of life and live on to this day.

FDR with Éamon de Valera
FDR with Éamon de Valera

“We are working toward a definite goal, which is to prevent the return of conditions which came very close to destroying what we call modern civilisation.

The actual accomplishment of our purpose cannot be attained in a day. Our policies are wholly within purposes for which our American Constitutional Government was established 150 years ago.

“I know that the people of this country will understand this and will also understand the spirit in which we are undertaking this policy.

I do not deny that we may make mistakes of procedure as we carry out the policy.

I have no expectation of making a hit every time I come to bat. What I seek is the highest possible batting average, not only for myself but for the team. Theodore Roosevelt once said to me: ‘If I can be right 75% of the time, I shall come up to the fullest measure of my hopes’.

Radio made it feel their president was talking directly to them. As FDR’s press secretary Stephen Early said: “It cannot misrepresent or misquote. It is far reaching and simultaneous in releasing messages given it for transmission to the nation or for international consumption.”

He spoke in plain language, simple for all citizens to comprehend.

The Museum of Broadcast Communications in Chicago put it thus: “FDR and his speechwriters always used basic language when preparing the fireside chats — 80% of the words FDR chose were among the 1,000 most commonly used words in the English vocabulary.

He also relied on stories, anecdotes, and analogies to explain the complex issues facing the country.

“The success of the fireside chats is evidenced by the millions of letters that flooded the White House.

Americans from all walks of life wrote to FDR, and many of these letters were written within days, even hours, of hearing their beloved president over the radio.

In these letters, people often wrote about how they felt during these radio addresses, as if FDR entered their homes and spoke to each of them.

“They also expressed their praise, appreciation, and confidence in their leader and friend. People also wrote of listening to the speeches with a group of friends or relatives, illustrating their collective appeal.

Through these letters, Roosevelt became better acquainted with the views of his public and became even more aware of the power of radio.

With almost 90% of all households owning radios at the end of his presidency, it made sense that Roosevelt would choose radio addresses as his means of connecting with the public. And FDR did connect with the public in a way no other president had before.”

FDR and Winston Churchill
FDR and Winston Churchill

When FDR died suddenly in 1945, the grief across the country was immense — the people had lost their champion, the uncle they had grown to love.

He was not a perfect president — his treatment of Japanese-Americans during the Second World War is a terrible stain on his legacy — but through radio, FDR brought government back to the people, restoring confidence that their public representatives indeed worked for them.

FDR remains ranked by historians as one of the best three presidents to ever hold the office, alongside George Washington and Abraham Lincoln.

TELEVISION TIPS THE BALANCE

John F Kennedy, 35th President of the United States, 1961-1963

Anyone listening to the first presidential debate between Massachusetts senator and Democrat candidate John Fitzgerald Kennedy and incumbent vice-president Richard Milhous Nixon on Monday, September 26, 1960, on the radio would have thought the Californian had a good night.

Republican stalwart Nixon matched Kennedy on policy, even beating him handily in the ears of much of the millions of listeners across the country.

On the relatively new medium of television, it was a far different story. The handsome senator with the Boston brogue and the telegenic looks was the runaway winner.

Nixon had arrived at the studio in Chicago fresh from a stay in hospital, tired in appearance, pale and unsteady.

Thrust into the eyes of the nation, Nixon looked ill at ease. Having refused makeup for the appearance, his stubble broke through the lens, while his suit was ill-fitting due to the weight loss over his two-week stint in medical care.

His own mother called him after the debate to ask if he was OK.

According to the Museum of Broadcast Communications, “the 70m who watched television saw a candidate still sickly and obviously discomforted by Kennedy’s smooth delivery and charisma”.

Richard Nixon
Richard Nixon

Those television viewers focused on what they saw, not what they heard, says the museum.

“Studies of the audience indicated that, among television viewers, Kennedy was perceived the winner of the first debate by a very large margin. The televised Great Debates had a significant impact on voters in 1960, on national elections since, and, indeed, on our concerns for democracy itself.

The impact on the election of 1960 was significant, albeit subtle. Commentators broadly agree that the first debate accelerated Democratic support for Kennedy.

While Kennedy would rely on help from the nefarious elements of US society to help deliver razor-tight voting states such as Chicago, namely the Italian-American organised crime syndicate La Cosa Nostra, the power of television in elevating him into American political consciousness cannot be underestimated.

Nixon would rally for the final three debates, regaining his lost weight and doubling down on substance in policy.

According to comprehensive election website Our Campaigns, Nixon was the clear winner overall.

“If the second debate had a slight edge for Nixon, the third debate was a definite Nixon victory.”

The damage from the first debate was done however, with 20m fewer Americans tuning into the debates after the initial one.

What the Kennedy-Nixon debates overall did do, according to the Museum of Broadcast Communications, was elevate the new medium of television.

“The Great Debates had a significant impact beyond the election of 1960, as well. They served as precedent around the world: Soon after the debates, Germany, Sweden, Finland, Italy, and Japan established debates between contenders to national office.

“Perhaps most important, the Great Debates forced citizens to rethink how democracy would work in a television era. To what extent does television change debate, indeed, change campaigning altogether?

“What is the difference between a debate that ‘just happens’ to be broadcast and one specifically crafted for television? What is lost in the latter? Do televised debates really help us to evaluate the relative competencies of the candidates, to evaluate policy options, to increase voter participation and intellectual engagement, to strengthen national unity?

“Fundamentally, such events lead to worries that television emphasises the visual, when visual attributes seem not the best, nor most reliable, indicators of a great leader.

“Yet other views express confidence that televised presidential debates remain one of the most effective means to operate a direct democracy. The issue then becomes one of improved form rather than changed forum.

“The Nixon-Kennedy debates of 1960 brought these questions to the floor.

Perhaps as no other single event, the Great Debates forced us to ponder the role of television in democratic life.

NEGATIVE CAMPAIGNING BECOMES COMMON PRACTICE USING TELEVISION

Lyndon Baines Johnson, 36th President of the United States, 1963-1969, and George HW Bush, 41st President of the United States, 1989-1993.

Before Donald John Trump became a lightning rod for notoriety in New York circles in the 1980s, culminating in an improbable victory in the 2016 US presidential election, a foul-mouthed former schoolteacher and Democratic senator from Texas was ripping up the playbook when it came to acceptable politics.

LBJ was brash, uncouth, bullying, and remarkably persuasive. His maligned legacy due to the Vietnam War debacle undercuts his achievements such as the Great Society, his programme to eradicate poverty and racial injustice.

Medicare and Medicaid continue to this day.

In order to achieve legitimacy for his presidency, which had begun in the most terrible of circumstances when Jack Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas in 1963, LBJ needed a decisive victory in the 1964 election.

JFK with LBJ
JFK with LBJ

His Republican opponent was Barry Goldwater, an extreme conservative (by the standards of the era).

LBJ was determined to paint him as an extremist, inflexible and dangerous, and would utilise the dirtiest of tricks and negative campaigning to do so.

The television spot named ‘Daisy’ has become infamous for its brutal effectiveness on behalf of the Democrat incumbent president. A little girl stands in a meadow, picking daisies and basking in the tranquility and innocence of the moment, all the while counting to 10.

When she reaches nine, a missile countdown begins and a nuclear explosion takes place.

LBJ’s voice looms large: “These are the stakes. To make a world in which all of God’s children can live, or to go into the dark. We must either love each other, or we must die.”

Although never mentioning the Republican candidate, the implication was clear — vote Goldwater and the world will burn.

The ad was pulled immediately amid ferocious criticism that the Democrat was appealing to the darkest fears of voters, but the damage was done.

LBJ’s victory was the most resounding since 1820, winning more than 60% of the popular vote.

Similarly, in 1988, the appeal to voter fear brought out the worst in US racial politics.

Vice-president under Ronald Reagan, George Herbert Walker Bush was behind in the polls to Democrat candidate, Michael Dukakis, the governor of Massachusetts.

Convicted murderer Willie Horton, incarcerated in Dukakis’ home state, had been allowed out on a weekend pass in 1986, when he proceeded to rape and assault a woman and her fiance.

He would receive an additional two consecutive life terms plus 85 years.

Dukakis, while not instigating temporary freedom passes for criminals, has supported the overall concept as a means of rehabilitation for some prisoners. He had little, if nothing, to do with the Horton situation.

Bush’s campaign seized on the fiasco, suggesting Dukakis supported violent criminals in the community.

The fact Horton was black simply reinforced the fear and prejudice many white Americans had for minorities.

Georhe HW Bush
Georhe HW Bush

The hard-faced caricature of Horton’s menacing and darkened mugshot on television became a lightning rod for fear at a time when American crime levels were at a high. Black citizens were an easy target.

“Dukakis not only opposes the death penalty, he allowed first-degree murderers to have weekend passes from prison...Weekend prison passes, Dukakis on crime,” a now infamous campaign ad said.

Bush would win in a landslide victory that November, with Dukakis’ campaign manager, Susan Estrich, saying the Republicans had ensured Horton was almost made into a running mate for her candidate.

BUSH BLOWS IT, CLINTON SEALS IT

Bill Clinton, 42nd President of the United States, 1993-2000

Bush would find out the hard way just how a seemingly insignificant moment on television can ruin a political career.

American morale was high following the First Gulf War of 1990 and 1991, but fears over the economy were worrying the electorate in 1992.

Facing not only a challenge from Democrat candidate, William Jefferson Clinton, governor of Arkansas, Bush also faced a splintering in his own party when swathes of voters flocked to third-party candidate Ross Perot.

During a town hall debate on national television, Bush was seen looking again and again at his watch, which viewers interpreted as him wanting out of the arena.

When a voter earnestly asked the blue-blood Bush how he could empathise with voters if he did not know what it was like to have economic anxiety, the incumbent president blew it.

“How can you honestly find a cure for the economic problems of the common people if you have no experience in what’s ailing them?” the voter asked.

Bush responded that he didn’t understand the question, then sounded irritable and defensive as he argued he didn’t have to be personally affected by a downturn to know how it felt.

It was a dreadful gaffe for the millions at home watching.

Clinton, on the other hand, had what is now seen as a breakout moment of brilliance, teeming with empathy and understanding of everyday Americans.

“I’ve been governor of a small state for 12 years. I’ll tell you how it’s affected me. Every year Congress and the president sign laws that make us do more things and gives us less money to do it with.

“I see people in my state, middle-class people — their taxes have gone up in Washington and their services have gone down while the wealthy have gotten tax cuts.

“I have seen what’s happened in this last four years when — in my state, when people lose their jobs there’s a good chance I’ll know them by their names. When a factory closes, I know the people who ran it.

“When the businesses go bankrupt, I know them. And I’ve been out here for 13 months in meetings just like this, ever since October, with people like you all over America, people that have lost their jobs, lost their livelihood, lost their health insurance.”

Clinton won an election easily due to the tired electorate seeking change from the status quo, leaving Bush as a one-term president.

His son George Walker Bush would become only the second to follow his father into the White House after John Quincy Adams became the sixth president of the US in 1829, after his father John Adams’ term as second holder of the office in 1797.

While Clinton would see his presidency disgraced due to his treatment of women, he had what all other political candidates the world over wished they had — the common touch.

His standout moments on television include his commitment to the peace process in Ireland, as well as consoling the families of the victims of the Oklahoma City Bombing in 1995.

Television had made him a star, as well as a president of the US.

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