by J. Pharoah Doss
The first presidential debate between President Donald Trump and Democratic nominee Joe Biden was declared the worst televised presidential debate in history. Afterwards a Vox headline said: It’s time to end presidential debates—forever.
How did we get to this point?
By 1958 Edward R. Murrow, renowned broadcast journalist, feared television was becoming “anti-intellectual” and the “instrument” was being misused by opportunists. This drove him to issue a challenge at the Radio-Television News Directors Association convention. Murrow stated, this instrument can teach, illuminate, and inspire, but it can only do so to the extent that humans are determined to use it to those ends. There is a great battle to be fought against ignorance, intolerance, and indifference. This weapon of television could be useful.
Two years later Senator John F. Kennedy and Vice President Richard Nixon participated in the first televised presidential debate in American history.
When the debate was over, it was too early to tell whether a televised presidential debate had a positive or negative effect on the electorate. Kennedy was convinced of the latter after it was rumored his “presidential appearance” catapulted him to the presidency and not his arguments.
By 1962 it was apparent Republican Senator Barry Goldwater was going to challenge Kennedy for the presidency in 1964. Kennedy and Goldwater entered the senate together, were adversaries, but were good friends. Goldwater described how to conduct a good political contest. He said, “It’s fine to oppose but don’t hate, keep your sense of humor, always oppose positively, and applaud your opponent if he is right.”
Goldwater mentioned in his memoir, “Kennedy thought if we could engage in a serious dialogue—direct the voters’ attention to the nation’s major problems—and then offer alternative solutions, we would be making a constructive contribution to the public understanding of the complexities of government.”
Both men believed the presidential election should be a referendum on public policy and not a repeat of the first televised presidential debate, which turned the election into a contrast of images.
To avoid the trap televised presidential debates posed, Kennedy and Goldwater made a gentleman’s agreement and decided not to run as rivals, demonizing the other to present himself as the lesser of two evils, but to campaign as a team.
Their plan was simple, travel the country and debate in front of live audiences. Goldwater said, “We would lift this presidential campaign above the petty, conniving, scheming which flawed every political race … We would present the American voter with an opportunity to make a reasoned decision based on tending political philosophies rather than personality.”
Their radical plan—the Camelot campaign—would have changed presidential campaigns for good.
But Kennedy’s assassination in 1963 also aborted the Kennedy-Goldwater campaign. The assassination also changed Goldwater’s opponent to Lyndon B. Johnson. (Johnson, who, by all accounts, stole the 1948 Texas senate election by 87 votes, earning him the derisive nickname Landslide-Lyndon.)
Johnson didn’t have a gentleman’s agreement with Goldwater. Johnson’s plan was primitive; humiliate the opponent and applaud his defeat.
Johnson decided to overdose the television audience with negative campaign ads. The most damaging ad against Goldwater became known as Daisy. It showed a little girl in a field picking petals off a flower while a man’s voice preformed a countdown to zero. Then it cuts to an image of a nuclear explosion. This attack ad aired once, but its message was clear—Goldwater was a warmonger who couldn’t be trusted with America’s nuclear arsenal.
Daisy turned Goldwater’s presidential aspirations into the mushroom cloud the attack ad depicted and on November 3, 1964, Lyndon Johnson won the presidency in a landslide.
The 2020 Presidential Election will also be held on November 3. No poll projected an electoral landslide, but a landslide victory for either candidate is the only thing standing between civility and chaos. If the election is close, neither side will concede, accuse the other of voter fraud, and chaos will spill into the streets with the “good people on both sides” shouting: He’s not my president.
At that moment, Americans will wish for Camelot campaigns.