By Robert Nedelkoff
As Chris Barber points out in this blog , the current season of AMC’s long running series Mad Men has been exploring the life of adman Don Draper and his contemporaries during the first months of the Nixon Administration. But longtime fans of the show will recall that the thirty-seventh President – in the days when he was still serving as the thirty-sixth Vice President – was an important presence in the show’s very first episodes.
When the first episodes of Mad Men aired in that long-ago time of 2007, the show was set in the even more remote period of 1960. During that first season, Don and his colleagues at the Sterling Cooper agency were avidly following the Presidential contest between Senator John F. Kennedy and Vice-President Nixon. And one part of the race that especially held their attention, given their close study of the impact of mass media on American opinion, was the series of debates between the two candidates, especially the first one which is widely thought to have narrowed the margin of preference in the electorate.
CNN this summer is presenting a weekly series, The Sixties, produced by Oscar-winning actor Tom Hanks, Gary Goetzman, and documentarian Mark Herzog. Using interviews and film and TV footage from the era, it tells the story of American life during one of the country’s most eventful and tumultuous decades, including shows devoted to the exploration of space, the civil rights movement, and the rise of the counterculture.
The opening episode, which can be seen here, is titled “Television Comes Of Age,” and describes how a medium which, ten short years before, was absent from most American homes, had by the start of the Sixties become an omnipresent part of the nation’s way of life….and especially focuses on the role it played in the decisions voters made in one of the closest Presidential elections in history.
At The Daily Beast, Scott Porch has an article about this episode, in which Herzog notes:
From a television image standpoint, Nixon couldn’t compete[…] Image says everything in that debate, and the image of Kennedy as assured, as presidential, comes across far more than Nixon even though Nixon had been vice president for eight years and Kennedy was relatively unknown.
While opinion polls showed that the majority of people listening to the radio broadcast of the debate thought that the Vice-President was the winner, Richard Nixon’s gaunt appearance on the TV screen, a few weeks after a brief hospitalization, and following a nonstop series of speeches across widely scattered area of the nation, presented a contrast to JFK’s relaxed, healthy demeanor, which led most TV voters to give the edge to the Democratic candidate. Although Vice-President Nixon did substantially better in the following debates, especially in the third one, the impression made by the initial meeting of the candidates still made it possible for Kennedy to prevail in November.
As Game Change co-author John Heilemann tells Porch: “For the people who would run every presidential campaign and every White House thereafter, the lesson they took from [the debate] was that television mattered a lot […] It changed the way that politics was practiced in very dramatic ways from that election forward.”