With the prospect of debates among British party leaders, an article in The Australian opines:
Appearances do not only matter in television debating: they are, in some ways, the only things that matter. The first TV debate in 1960 pitted a sweaty, unshaven Richard Nixon recovering from flu, against a tanned, youthful John F. Kennedy who had spent much of the previous week on the golf course. Those who heard the debate on radio reckoned Nixon the winner. But more than 80 million Americans watched it on television, and in that medium the victor was clear. It was not so much a measure of JFK’s abilities as a resounding tribute to the power of television.
Some corrections are in order. RN was not recovering from the flu, but from an infected knee. He was clean-shaven, though his complexion tended to give the impression of a five o’clock shadow. While the recently-hospitalized RN did not look his best, he hardly had the death’s-door appearance of legend. (When I show video of the debate to students, they wonder what the big deal was about.) JFK was youthful, but so was RN, who was only four years older. One poll did show that radio listeners scored Nixon as the winner, but that result has limited significance, since those who listened on radio were demographically very different from those who watched on TV. The radio audience was predisposed to support RN to begin with. To the extent that the first debate did affect the election, substance counted more than cosmetics. Trying to shake his attack-dog image, RN erred by being too deferential and defensive.
Even the leading lines of the article are misleading: “On October 15, 1992, the first president Bush glanced at his watch, and lost the presidential election. At almost the same moment, Bill Clinton took three paces forward, and won it. 2 election.” No, Bush’s watch glances looked bad but did not cost him the election. Clinton was leading Bush before the debates. Afterward, in fact, his lead narrowed.