The presidential debate: A prequel


The first presidential debate of 2024 is now history. I wrote the following piece as a kind of prequel to that debate, something separate from analyzing that event in the way so many pundits have done in the last several days. Let me take you back to where this whole odd political tradition of questionable value was born.

In September 1960, I left the only home I had known since infancy, our three-room apartment in Brooklyn, to begin my graduate program in Clinical Psychology in Harvard’s Social Relations Department. My new digs were a dormitory room in what can politely be called unprepossessing and charmless, a recently constructed cinder block building. It was an exciting terrifying new start for me.

It was also an opportunity for a new start for the country. The relatively quiescent years of President Eisenhower’s two terms in office were coming to an end and an election that pitted Richard Nixon against John F. Kennedy was only two months away. I had been tuned into national politics for quite a while by then. In the previous campaign in 1956, I was working in a factory in the Garment Center in New York that employed my father. It was another moment of transition for me. I had just graduated from high school and was about to enter college at the end of the summer.

Presidential conventions conducted much of their business during the day, and the factory carried much of the broadcast over its loudspeaker system. I have a vivid memory of listening to the state-by-state roll call vote between the two top Democratic contenders, Adlai Stevenson and Tennessee Senator Estes Kefauver. In retrospect, all the excitement of that contest was inconsequential because Eisenhower’s popularity was sure to steamroller either of them. [Note: Those who are now advocating an open convention to select the Democratic nominee need to be reminded of how raucous and divisive that process was.]

1960, then, was the first year when the Constitutional amendment limiting presidents to two terms was in effect, so President Eisenhower’s time was up and someone new would succeed him. It was also my first opportunity, at age 21, to vote in a presidential election. A televised presidential debate was another first. There were four debates scheduled in September and October, and the excitement level in the country was high.

The days of dorm rooms equipped with TVs, microwaves and fridges were a long way off in the future. The only way to watch the debates was in the student lounge which I recall being in the basement of the building. It’s hard to say how much I actually remember of the debate and how much is a pastiche of screen memories generated from all the accounts I’ve read since then. Much has been written about Nixon’s refusal to wear makeup for the first debate, the absence of which highlighted his 5 o’clock shadow, making him look sinister in ways that augured his demise more than a decade later. In contrast, JFK, whose home base was only miles away from my dormitory, looked suave and handsome, a far more positive image than his opponent’s.

We were at the beginning of an era, extending to today, where image trumped substance. It’s hard to say how much that TV exposure actually affected the outcome of that race. Evidence suggests that this extremely tight race was determined more by the manipulations of the Chicago results by the first Mayor Daley, but there’s no question that a whole image-making industry was being born, which isnow enhanced by the terrifying technological possibilities created by AI. We are now several steps further removed from access to the “truth” of who and what we are voting for.

Obviously, all of this is front and center in my thinking on this Tuesday before the debate. I wanted to get it down before the debate itself because so much will be written about its actual outcome. There’ll be competing efforts to crown a winner and minute analyses of missteps, lies, points scored. It will be hard for you to read this attempt to place the event in a historical context tracing back to that contest 64 years ago when faith in the reliability of an election’s outcome was implicit and the fate of democracy did not hang in the balance. November still seems like a long way off, but by Friday we may have a better sense of where this cumbersome ship is headed.

About the author

Marv Hoffman

Add comment

Follow Me

Recent Posts