It could be argued that the focus of American presidential politics shifted from substance to style with the advent of the televised debate in 1960. That first one, staged in Chicago just two months prior to the general election, pitted the politically savvy Vice President Richard M. Nixon against the apprentice Senator John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts.
Few remember first-hand the content of that debate. After all, if one were of voting age in 1960, that person would be at least 80 today. But the history books tell a story of the two men almost mirroring each other’s ideas and goals, with equal emphasis on national security, the ever-looming threat of communism and Soviet domination, U.S. military strength and a domestic agenda that promised an unspecified but assuredly brighter future for people of all shapes, sizes and colors.
In sharp contrast to the 2016 Republican debates in which even Ben Carson seemed to blush as Donald Trump and Marco Rubio showed more interest in penises than policies, Nixon and Kennedy were cordial and pleasant. The fence that delineated their parties was crossed easily and regularly. Privately, they probably expressed a certain contempt for each other, but they acted like gentlemen on the public stage. Following his opponent’s opening statement, Nixon said, “I subscribe completely to the spirit that Senator Kennedy has expressed tonight.” No doubt his advisors and speech writers were pulling out their crew cuts backstage.
That night, television, though hardly in its infancy but still not an appliance in every American home (my family’s first one arrived in our living room in 1963), ushered in a new era in which image and media exposure has become essential to any political campaign. Marshall McLuhan, in his 1964 book, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, taught us that television, the medium, had become the message.
Twenty years later, Neil Postman would publish Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business that further demonstrates our society’s insatiable appetite for politics as entertainment.
To support the point, Nixon was considered the victor of that first debate by the radio audience. The majority of the estimated 70 million television viewers gave the victory to Kennedy.
While the radio audience listened to content, the television audience was treated to Nixon’s five o’clock shadow, the Lazy Shave makeup that clotted in the heat of the studio lights, and a pale gray suit that lent a ghostly look to an already haggard-looking man.
He was no match for the handsome Kennedy, whose tanned complexion (obvious even in black-and-white) seemed an elegant expression of carefree summers on Cape Cod.
Style clearly trumped substance.
CNN WANTS TO RETURN SUBSTANCE to the debate stage. Sort of. The venerable all-news network that Trump loves to hate will undertake such an endeavor on Wednesday evening when it devotes seven hours to its “Climate Crisis Town Hall.” The live program will give ten lucky Democrat candidates 40 minutes each to discuss the climate crisis—hence the name—with CNN personalities and a hand-picked audience of non-partisan participants who have pledged not to applaud, whistle, stomp their feet or show any unscripted emotion.
They have also promised to stay awake during this marathon that doubles as a fundraiser for a recently discovered family of endangered toads that lives somewhere in West Texas.
The show, being hyped as “more-than-just-redundant” and “more exciting than CSPAN 3,” will downplay the point that 96 percent of all Democrats agree fundamentally that we’ll all be living under water in 12 years unless we start driving electric cars, quit using plastic straws and begin replacing our lawns with hemp. Immediately, if not sooner.
The show begins at 5 p.m. (ET) with Wolf Blitzer interviewing former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro. In an effort to be all-inclusive in these divided times, Blitzer will conduct the interview in Yiddish, with Castro answering in Spanish.
At 5:40, Blitzer continues his gunslinger approach to television journalism with businessman Andrew Yang, who will be badgered by Blitzer for again not wearing a necktie. Yang then will offer his host $1,000 just to shut up.
Erin Burnett will show her deft skills as a television news personality when she turns her interviews with California Sen. Kamala Harris (6:20) and Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar (7:00) into shameless promotions for her nightly show, “Erin Burnett Presents Erin Burnett’s OutFront with Erin Burnett.” Actually, both Harris and Klobuchar have a lot to say about climate change that the audience will never get to hear. Then again, if you’ve heard one story about the polar ice cap, you’ve heard them all.
At 8 p.m., Anderson Cooper will remind former Vice President Joe Biden why he’s even at the Town Hall meeting and proceed to indulge the lifelong politician’s incessant reminiscing about riding Amtrak when it was steam-powered, back before we even had carbon emissions. For reasons that escape everyone, he will wax poetic about tiny feet. Biden will then remind viewers that he knows Barack Obama, but is uncomfortable calling him “Barry.”
At 8:40, Cooper will remind Sen. Bernie Sanders of his contractual agreement not to utter the words “revolution” or “one percent.” Bernie will then perform a rap song about smog (“Yo Dawg, I Sees Da Bern”). Cooper will beatbox as only a Yale graduate can.
Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren will go toe-to-toe with Chris “Fredo” Cuomo, whose father (Mario) was and brother (Andrew) is Governor of New York, but neither of whom were honored by People magazine as one of the 50 sexiest people of 1997. (For the sake of balance and fairness, I should note that Chris and I share a birthday, and that his father and I once hung out together with Dick Clark in Anaheim, California, talking about The Godfather and remembering that Morgana King was a truly fine singer. Weird, huh?) In honor of Warren’s controversial heritage, the Senator will communicate her environmental concerns—which are legend—via smoke signals. She’s hoping it will piss off Trump.
Demonstrating that he’ll do almost anything to get out of South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who is planning to dress in full desert camouflage, will spend most of his allotted time playing the concert grand piano and singing his favorite Edith Piaf songs, thereby evoking the sound of cascading waterfalls (which are in danger of disappearing due to the Ford Motor Company) and showcasing his ability to speak French. His set begins at 10 p.m.
Former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke will appear with CNN’s Don Lemon at 10:40 p.m. Beto, who discovered the aforementioned family of toads living in the natural squalor of West Texas while campaigning for the Senate against the self-proclaimed super-Christian Ted Cruz, will try to convince Lemon, who is inexplicably afraid of warts, to pet the little toad who goes by the name Mike Pence. Beto will also talk of his love of frogs, which he sees as kind of a French thing as long as there’s enough garlic and butter.
The evening concludes with the introduction of New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker at 11:20 p.m. Booker has indicated that his solution to climate change would be that we rid the planet of livestock—especially cows, whose methane-laden farts are destroying the planet at about the same rate as NASCAR races. Booker, despite his admitted weakness for chicken, is a vegan, which by definition labels him as untrustworthy, and he wants us all to do the moral thing and live on raw kale and tofu pizza.
Or chicken. Maybe. But only because nobody has ever heard a chicken fart. I could be wrong about that, actually.
Chicken poop, while lacking the necessary gases to matter much to the environment, is a known cause of ocular histoplasmosis, a fungal disease of the lung that moves to the eye and can cause blindness, as can many other things.
Now you see how the toads, Biden and the French figure into our ecological future. Or not. Invest in scuba equipment, just in case.
Photography by Courtney A. Liska