Is David Cameron thinking about Richard Nixon in 1960?
In our debate about the debates, what can we take from perhaps the most famous political head to head joust in modern times – Richard Nixon vs Jack Kennedy, America, 1960.
It was the first leader debate of the television age. There are remarkable echoes in today’s wranglings to those of 55 years ago.
The US television stations proposed the debate. They saw it as a ratings no-brainer. Jack Kennedy, the young challenger, agreed instantly. He had equally compelling reasons to go for it: he wanted the opportunity to take on media charges that he lacked experience, and he knew that achieving an equal status with the incumbent Vice President would aid his cause. As his media adviser rather cynically put it afterwards, “all I want is a picture of you and Nixon on the same television tube.”
It’s easy to imagine similar comments today in the Miliband camp.
Vice President Richard Nixon didn’t want to do it. He thought it would only raise his challenger’s profile. He thought it could be demeaning for a Vice President to debate on ‘equal’ terms. He didn’t fancy being forced to defend the mounting failings of the Eisenhower presidency; he wanted to distance himself from all that.
It’s easy to imagine echoes of those points in the Cameron camp.
But, in the end, Nixon agreed. He ignored his advisers who all told him not to debate. He decided he could do it, and that he could best the inexperienced Kennedy. Most importantly of all, according to his biographers, he feared that a refusal would be exploited by Kennedy throughout the rest of the campaign, leaving him on the defensive and looking weak. Polls showed that the public wanted a debate.
Nixon overruled both his advisers and his own caution.
The famous confrontation that resulted is now part of American political folklore. It didn’t go well for Nixon.
He got content wrong. In his opening remarks – which followed Kennedy’s – he repeatedly said he agreed with the Senator (echoes of ‘I agree with Nick’?). He was considered too defensive. His delivery was unsteady.
And he had bad luck. His knee hurt – he had banged it badly on the campaign trail and he was on pain killers. He was just getting over flu. He sweated a lot. Too much make up was plastered onto him to disguise his pale skin. Chicago mayor, Richard Daley, tuning in on his tv, said, on seeing Nixon, ‘My God, they embalmed him before he even died.” On black and white television, Nixon’s light grey suit caused him to blend into the similarly coloured studio backcloth.
Kennedy, by contrast, had prepared intensely, and had rested. He was tanned and his suit was dark. He was, by most accounts, also pumped up with Dexedrine and steroids, partly to address his Addison’s disease.
Image mattered. To the TV audience, Kennedy was sharp and cool, Nixon shifty. The TV audience called it for Kennedy, easily. Interestingly, however, the radio audience called it a dead heat.
It is considered to have swung the outcome, helping Kennedy to his wafer-thin victory. Nixon’s decision to override his caution proved a bad call. His biographers agree that he regretted his decision to debate almost as soon as he had made it.
Kennedy told an aide, “Nixon was a damn fool to agree to debate me.”
The interests and calculations of the candidates for Britain’s potential leaders’ head to head are really not so different as those of the contenders for the presidency 55 years ago.
Ed Miliband’s positioning and interests echo those of Kennedy’s. David Cameron’s starting position is the same as Nixon’s was.
Nixon however eventually concluded that resistance would arm his opponent and damage his campaign.
David Cameron may be reflecting on that call as he decides to double down on resisting Ed Miliband’s challenge.
His gamble is how it will play in the court of public opinion. And, so far, he has no effective answer to all the replays of his passionate advocacy of such a debate in 2010.
When Nixon and Kennedy made their decisions in 1960 they were influenced by the thought that they were history makers. In Britain today, we have one party leader trying to be a history repeater, and another desperately trying not to be.
Are we heading for another case of where politics wins the public interest loses? If so, voter cynicism will only deepen.