I admit, living in the UK has spoiled me rotten to the BBC’s political commentary. Their reporters and journalists are people who’ve covered the political scene since God was a boy, often working themselves onto the national stage by means of the provincial and local beat.
Granted, some are part of a political dynasty – in Britain, Richard Dimbleby’s sons,David and Jonathan, are inheritors of his mantle, but neither erupted on the national scene until they were mature men well past the age of thirty, and neither shouted out questions to a disgraced politician centering around a sports score, the way the scion of our greatest political commentator did.
The BBC employs real political journalists. It’s political “contributors” are seasoned strategists and ex-politicos, not socialites, social climbers and soccer moms, and certain not inarticulate sorority sisters.
And the historian whom they consult is Simon Schama, who is consistent, and who doesn’t spin against fact about which he’s written to score a point against a politician whom he thinks is “arrogant.”
This is why I was particularly shocked to see Perlstein wantonly revise history in this interview with Chris Matthews earlier this week. It was directly the opposite of what actually happened in the first debate of 1960.
Quite specifically, Kennedy didn’t blind Nixon with sweeping liberal confidence and rhetoric to the point that Nixon broke out into a sweat. The fact is, as Perlstein reports in pages 52-58 of Nixonland, Nixon was ill at the time of the debate and had a temperature of 101 degrees. To whit, the man was sweating before the debate even started, from fever, though it pains me to be seen as defending such an odious being as Richard Nixon.
But here are Perlstein’s own words from his own book – words that are not cherry-picked or spun:-
Nixon was knocking off states in the South at a handsome clip when he contracted a staph infection from banging his knee on a car door. His physicians counselled three weeks in the hospital. Newspaper journalists urged the honorable course on his opponent: to cease campaigning for those three weeks. The Democrat sent a get-well message instead. (And they called Dick Nixon the dirty one). Ill-advisedly, Nixon kept on knocking off states: Maryland and Indiana and Texas and California his first day out, Oregon and Idaho with a side trip up to Canada the second. The next day, between Grand Forks and Peoria, Richard Nixon caught a cold. Then as he crossed the tarmac in the rain, flew the red-eye to St Louis, and struggled to connect with a hostile Democratic crowd of union machinists on three hours’ sleep, the cold got worse. Then a scratchy-voiced peroration in New Jersey; then a hop to Roanoke for an open-air address that added another line to his crowded medical chart: a high fever, something to enjoy on the predawn flight back halfway across the continent to Omaha, Nebraska.
As the day of the debate approached, Nixon was swallowing drowsy-making antibiotics, but still losing sleep; fortifying himself against weight loss with several chocolate milk shakes a day, but still losing weight; losing color; adding choler. He looked pale, awful.
His staff offered practice sessions. Nixon barked that he already knew how to debate. He was underwhelmed by the event at any rate. “Television is not as effective as it was in 1952,” he had told a journalist. “The novelty has worn off.”
Kennedy prepared like a monk. The afternoon of the showdown, he capped off the last of the three intensified practice sessions with a fortifying nap, piles of index cards covering him like a security blanket.
While Kennedy slept, Nixon campaigned in front of another hostile union crowd. His TV advisers became increasingly frenzied as the appointed hour approached; they were kept away from him, and weren’t able to brief him on the debate format. Nixon took a single phone call of advice, from his vice-presidential candidate, Henry Cabot Lodge.
The hour arrived. For security, the candidates were driven directly inside the studio building. One wonders what distraction inspired Richard Nixon’s awkward egress that ended with his smashing his bad knee once more on the car door’s edge. His facial reaction was recorded for posterity: “white and pasty.”
Kennedy emerged from his car looking in a producer’s recollection like “a young Adonis.” (That the young Adonis, but for a dangerous schedule of pharmaceuticals, was sick as an old man was for future generations to find out.) He kept his suit fresh by slipping into a robe. He walked out onto a terrace, sunlight dancing on his skin, paced back and forth, all coiled energy, punching his palm with his fist: the challenger.
In the other corner, the reigning heavyweight debating champion, weihing in at –
(Eight pounds less than it took to fill the shirt he was wearing.)
His people had begged Nixon to let them buy him a new one. He stubbornly refused. An aide had slathered a species of make-up over a portion of his face – a product called Lazy Shave, cadged at the last minute from a corner drugstore, to cover up his day’s beard growth. The concession was no doubt ascribable to Herblock’s infamous caricatures in the Washington Post. They’d rendered Nixon’s “five o’clock shadow” a national laughingstock.
The panel of reporters introduced themselves. And Howard K Smith of ABC intoned, “In this discussion, the first of a series of four joint appearances, the subject matter, it has been agreed, will be restricted to internal, or domestic, American matters.” He called the Democrat to begin with his opening statement; and the Democrat opened up, staring stalwartly into the camera, with a sucker punch.
And they called Dick Nixon the dirty one.
“We discuss tonight domestic issues. But I would not want that to be – any implication to be given that this does not involve directly our struggle with Mr Khrushshev for survival.” Kennedy was bending past the breaking point the spirit of the two campaigns’ formal agreement to focus the first debate on domestic issues and talking about what Nixon was not yet primed to discuss: foreign policy. The distraction was brilliant. It left Nixon with two immediate choices – calling the foul and looking as if he were ducking, or letting Kennedy get away with looking like he was controlling the debate.
So Kennedy essentially pulled the 1960 equivalent of Sarah Palin’s infamous “I’m not gonna answer any questions, I’m gonna talk right to the American people.” Nudge-nudge-wink-wink.
Last November, the BBC aired a documentary about the debate. Its host and researcher was Andrew Marr, the BBC’s chief political correspondent, a man who would put any of our political pundits and commentators to shame.
Marr prefaced the actual debate, with background about how Kennedy, essentially, ratfucked Hubert Humphrey in order to win the West Virginia primary, by getting his operatives to push the lie that Humphrey was a conscientious objector during the second World War. The story stuck, a precursor to Lee Atwater’s assertion that perception is reality.
But more important, this is what Marr found out about that iconic first debate:-
When I met some of those involved, including Kennedy’s TV adviser in 1960, I came away freshly awestruck by his presentational audacity.
For instance, in that first debate, Kennedy politely excused himself for a “comfort break” a minute before the two men were live on air. He did not come back.
As the studio manager was counting down the final seconds to going live, everyone – Nixon included – was aghast. Just as the count ended, there was Kennedy, smiling at the podium. “Psyching” an opponent doesn’t get smarter than that.
And yet… Kennedy beat Nixon not simply with his ads, his sound bites, his jingles, the carefully posed photographs and the downright lies he told about his health. He beat Nixon by not standing for anything beyond rousing banalities.
On the “missile gap” with the Russians, Kennedy knowingly hyped the danger. Nixon, as vice-president, knew the real facts but also for reasons of national security, could not reveal them. (And Kennedy probably knew that, too.)
On the other great issue – civil rights – the Kennedy team sent one message to black audiences and another to middle America.
Did it matter? I came away thinking the mix of big money, smearing, a feel-good blur where policy should have been, and the selling of the candidate like soap flakes, added up to a fairly shameful record.
Even then, he barely won. The younger Nixon, who was liberal on race and more economically mainstream than he became, could well have made a good earlier president.
In office Kennedy made some terrible overseas blunders (though kept his nerve over the Cuban missile crisis) and was slow on domestic policy, particularly civil rights. Had he lived longer, I think he would have had a lower presidential reputation.
The 1960 campaign is not the story I had expected. It’s a far more interesting one. It has been obliterated by those images of the handsome young father and husband, then the young king cut down in his prime.
But today we live in a world that has become profoundly cynical about politics. I think we owe it to ourselves to look past those images and ask: aren’t there better ways of doing democracy than Kennedy’s?
So all Perlstein’s rhetoric that Kennedy swept Nixon into a sweat with his soaring and confident liberal punches was pure spin, delivered to a hack posing as a viable political interviewer and strengthening the assertions of a girl reporter so tongue-tied she couldn’t articulate a sentence clearly. Why? To spin pejoratively the current Democratic President as ineffective and – in Harriet Christian’s words, “an inadequate black man.”
If you want to know there “historian” Rick Perlstein stands on Obama, check this out. Troll along the commentary enough and get past the adolescent “I am Spartacus” shite, and you’ll find that what he hates most about the President is that he’s “arrogant.”
Well, Yankee Boy, I’m a Southern girl, and where I come from, “arrogant” is Northern for “uppity.” You’ll also find that Marse Rick lives in the President’s old Chicago neighbourhood.
So for insightful commentary, good old reliable (not) Chris Matthews gets a slip of a lass off the rag of Her Serene Highness Queen Ratfucker Omnipotent of Medialand and someone who’s clandestinely (unless you look at his Facebook page) hostile (and maybe racially so) to the President.
And you use them to compare him to FDR and Kennedy. FDR, born into American aristocracy, born to lead and rule, the liberal icon whom today’s EmoProgs conveniently forget did jack-holy-shit for African Americans – indeed, who compromised with the Southern tranche of a 70 plus Democratic Senate majority in order to pass social welfare legislation which denied any coverage to that racial demographic. The same FDR, the Japanese-Caucasian Alex Wagner should note, interned the Nisei in concentration camps during the second World War.
And, yes, Chris Matthews is right to point out that Richard Nixon, as President, wanted to effect employer-based universal healthcare … but was scuppered from doing so by Ted Kennedy in the Senate, whom he’d approached to help craft the legislation.
The late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan once said that a person is entitled to his own opinion, but he isn’t entitled to his own fact. It’s scurvy enough to spin current affairs to suit a particular agenda; it’s worse to spin the past to suit the same. Even worse, is when someone who touts himself as a historian does this, as a means to achieve an end.
It’s not clever. It’s scurvy. And it’s the secular version of what David Barton is doing on the right, but for the same purpose.
Politics certainly does turn up strange bedfellows.
Anyway, for anyone who’s interested, here’s the first debate from the 1960 election, in its entirety:-
- Rick Perlstein to Obama: Let People Know the Democratic Party is on Their Side (crooksandliars.com)
- Perlstein: Democrats win when they defend the social safety net (dailykos.com)