When the term “new media” is used today, no one thinks of television.  But 50 years ago television was on the cutting edge of technology, and it was about to alter American politics in a manner that no other “new media” has managed to do since.
Most point to September 26, 1960, the date of the first televised presidential debate in American history, as the marker of television’s entre to politics.  The date represented a political milestone, and forever altered how presidential campaigns are conducted not just in the United States but around the world as countries like Germany, Italy, Japan, Sweden, Finland, and others quickly established their own televised debates.  And just last year the United Kingdom employed a televised debate for their election of Prime Minister.  However, September 26, 1960 was not the first time television was employed as tool in politics.

In 1948 television would hardly have looked like much of a factor in politics.  Less than 3 percent of the population owned a set, and President Harry Truman taped just a single spot announcement that simply encouraged citizens to vote.  It was more of a public service announcement than a political advertisement.  Two years later, during the 1950 mid-term elections, a few candidates began to see televisions potential.

The initial landmark year for political television, though, was 1952.  Television had become truly national, not just regional, and portions of the political parties’ national conventions were broadcast first then.  Though less than half of the nation’s households owned televisions at the time, the steadily increasing number was enough to force aspiring presidential campaigns to take notice.

Dwight Eisenhower’s advisers were particularly intrigued with the device, seeing it as a way to counter his stumbling press conference performances and to make him appear more knowledgeable.[1] Eisenhower’s advertising campaign was a glimpse of the future.  His campaign produced an extraordinarily large number of spots (forty-nine produced for television, twenty-nine for radio); most of them were twenty seconds in length, the rest sixty seconds. They played repeatedly in forty-nine selected counties in twelve non-southern states as well as a few targeted southern states.

The commercials themselves were simplistic and technically very primitive by comparison with what we see today, but the GOP commercials from 1952 reveal that the issues in American politics never seem to change, evident in Eisenhower’s slogan “It’s Time for a Change”.  Thus began the enduring union of television and politics, and for better or worse set the course for future campaigns tactics that today require full-time media consultants and expenditures of hundreds of millions of dollars in political advertising.

The influence of television in crafting the political of image of President Kennedy is often noted, and with good reason as the medium came of age during his administration.  But Richard Nixon’s political career is, to a great extent, a measure of the influence of media politics.  His vice-presidential nomination had been saved in 1952 by the judicious use of television.[2] At a cost of $75,000 (adjusted for inflation it would cost over $600,000 today) Nixon’s advisers purchased program time on Tuesday, September 23, 1952 for him to deliver his famous “Checkers’ Speech”.  The speech represented a brilliant use of the new technology and is generally credited with rescuing Nixon from early oblivion.

But Nixon became one of television’s first victims in his presidential campaign of 1960 when he rather surprisingly refused a proposal from the same consultants who had purchased and master-minded the famous “Checkers’ Speech” (Batten, Barton, Durstine, and Osborn) to organize his first presidential campaign around the latest media techniques.  Preferring a more traditional approach, Nixon ended up a perceived loser of his initial and most important television debate with Democratic nominee John F. Kennedy because he had been ill, and was not well rested or well made up.  Nixon had unknowingly violated the new and largely unknown rule that television would come to require of all politicians: “Look the part.”  On radio, by contrast, where visual appearances were irrelevant, Nixon made a far better impression and, anecdotally, was thought by some listeners to have had the better of Kennedy.

Eight years later, chastened by his 1960 defeat and his subsequent 1962 loss of the California governorship, Nixon used television to stage one of the most remarkable comebacks in U.S. history.  Nixon’s sensitive, well-planned media campaign was aided by the widespread introduction of color to the television screen.  Color, combined with better makeup and more frequent shavings, helped to eliminate the shadowy look that haunted his previous television image of 1960.

In today’s political environment, “new media” is defined as online social websites, and politicians wrestle with its increasing pervasiveness, unpredictable effects, and often unusual conventions and etiquette.  In the 1950s and 1960s, television was equally new, undefined, and volatile.  As we now mark the 50th anniversary of the Great Debates, it is worthwhile to recall that Richard M. Nixon was among the first pioneers of the original “new media.” Mr. Nixon’s precedent-setting, televised successes and failures over his several historic decades of campaigns and office-holding can still instruct today’s candidates and consultants as they seek to understand the benefits and risks of new media.

[1] Stanley Kelley, Professional Public Relations and Political Power (Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins, 1956) pp. 160-169, 187-201.

[2] Ibid., pp. 177-184.