Did you watch the vice-presidential debate last night? I had it on in the background while writing this.
What the heck could I possibly say — except that given all the interruptions and over-talking in both debates so far, I’d like to suggest that we recruit a federal judge as a moderator. Somebody with a gavel and an attitude.
So, instead let’s talk about another debate. We were visiting my parents recently, and my dad mentioned he’d watched part of one of the 1960 Nixon-Kennedy debates on C-SPAN3.
Long time ago, right? Even people who weren’t born for many years afterward “remember” that JFK supposedly won if you watched on TV, but Nixon won if you listened to the radio.
However nobody seems to “remember” that there were actually four debates that year.
The debate my dad caught a bit of recently was actually the third session. Honestly, it was very 2020 in one sense, in that it was basically a Zoom debate—with Nixon in a studio in Los Angeles, while Kennedy was in New York.
But on October 13, 1960, the torch hadn’t quite been passed to the new generation yet.
Kennedy and Nixon were 43 and 47, respectively, and they walked under the weight of their parties’ elder statesmen, like Eisenhower and Truman—neither of whom was really a big help.
Eisenhower wasn’t exactly barnstorming around the country for Nixon, and Truman created some headaches for Kennedy, too.
For one thing, he’d apparently said not long before the debate that Nixon was a man who “never told the truth in his life,” and that anyone who would vote for him “ought to go to hell.”
When Republicans demanded an apology, Truman followed up by saying anyone who complained could also “go to hell.”
That’s kind of hilarious to my 21st century eyes, but it was a bit of a kerfuffle at the time. RNC chairman Senator Thruston Morton demanded that Kennedy apologize for Truman’s comments, and it came up in the debate.
So, let’s just quote a little bit from how both JFK and Nixon addressed it.
“Well, I must say that uh – Mr. Truman has uh – his methods of expressing things; he’s been in politics for 50 years; he’s been president of the United States. They may – are not my style.
But I really don’t think there’s anything that I could say to President Truman that’s going to cause him, at the age of 76, to change his particular speaking manner. Perhaps Mrs. Truman can, but I don’t think I can. I’ll just have to tell Mr. Morton that. If you’d pass that message on to him.”
Nixon went on a bit longer, so I’ll only quote part of it. He didn’t have Kennedy’s humorous touch—the part about deferring to Mrs. Truman, and asking the moderator to pass a message along, as if millions weren’t watching. But, he called for civility:
“Of course, both, er – Senator Kennedy and I have felt Mr. Truman’s ire … I just do want to say one thing, however. We all have tempers; I have one; I’m sure Senator Kennedy has one. But when a man’s president of the United States, or a former president, he has an obligation not to lose his temper in public. …
[W]hoever is president is going to be a man that all the children of America will either look up to, or will look down to. And I can only say that I’m very proud that President Eisenhower restored dignity and decency and, frankly, good language to the conduct of the presidency of the United States.”
Nixon goes on and on and on, and I can almost see why he lost the election(*) based on this one answer. Also, the “good language” thing is funny if you ever heard the Nixon White House tapes later.
But let’s stick to the spirit. I’m not going to pretend that these were the “good old days,” when people were decent and even saying the ol’ “H-E-double hockey sticks” was enough to get your mouth washed out with soap.
Yet, I can understand why people might look back on that time with nostalgia. And now that I think about it more, I guess I was incorrect at the start of this essay when I said I didn’t know what the heck to say about last night’s debate. (“Heck” was intentional, by the way.)
If you watched last night, there was a question at the end from an eighth grader—basically about why anyone should care about politics, if both sides do nothing but attack each other.
I look back at that vignette, from long ago, New York and Los Angeles at the same time. And maybe it’s true that there was once a time that was a bit different.
Politics wasn’t beanbag, but it also feels as if perhaps it wasn’t quite bloodsport—at least not in the middle of a nationally televised debate.
7 other things worth your time
Scotland ordered a two-week closure of pubs in part of the country, including Glasgow and Edinburgh, to try to curb a rise in coronavirus cases. (France24)
Did you vote yet? Almost 6 million Americans already have. (I did!) (The Hill)
Facebook said it won’t allow any political ads as soon as the polls close in the U.S. on November 3. Meanwhile, Citigroup fired an employee who was revealed to have been running one of the biggest QAnon conspiracy theory websites. (CNBC, Business Insider)
The U.S. is moving to prevent a New York-born American soldier who served in Korea from returning home, in a dispute over whether he’s actually a citizen. The curveball: it turns out, his father was a foreign diplomat at the time of his birth. (The Washington Post)
Former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, charged in the killing of George Floyd, was released on a $1 million bond. (NPR)
This was apparently unprecedented: The New England Journal of Medicine came out with an article condemning the U.S. government response to Covid-19 as “dangerously incompetent,” and sayin voters “should not abet them and enable the deaths of thousands more Americans by allowing them to keep their jobs.” (NEJM)
Almost the entire membership of the military’s joint chiefs of staff are in quarantine, after another general — the deputy commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps — was diagnosed with Covid-19. (Axios)
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