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norman kelley

norman kelley
Washington, District of Columbia, USA
Norman Kelley is an independent journalist, author, and former segment radio producer at WBAI 99.5 FM Pacifica Radio. He has written for Society, L A Weekly, The Brooklyn Rail, The Village Voice, The Nation, New York Press, Newsday,, The Black Star News, New Politics, Black Renaissance/Noir, and The Bedford Stuyvesant Current. He is also the author of the "noir soul"/ mystery series that features "Nina Halligan" in Black Heat (Amistad), The Big Mango (Akashic Books), and A Phat Death (2003). Norman Kelley was also a contributing writer to Brooklyn Noir (Akashic Books, 2004) and DC Noir (Akashic Books, 2006) and Gig: Americans Talk About Their Jobs at the Turn of the Millennium (Random House 2000). He edited and contributed to R&B (Rhythm and Business): The Political Economy of Black Music (Akashic Books, 2005; 2002).

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Editor’s Pick
OCTOBER 6, 2008 10:33AM

JFK’s Dirty Tricks: Making Nixon Sweat

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For years conventional wisdom has often been that Republicans are just better at playing the political game of getting elected and especially at winning the White House. The Republicans, so goes the conventional wisdom, are just better at going for the jugular than Democrats; they relish fighting dirty and are good at it. After all, mention “Willie Horton” or “Swift Boating” and you have synecdoche for negative political ads or the use of outright misrepresentation (a.k.a. lying) about the Democrats' presidential aspirants. The Democrats either have fought back unsuccessfully or just seemed to be flummoxed that the Republicans have a take-no-prisoners mentality.

Democrats have been late at understanding that politics is less about issues and more about how to emotionally appeal to people. But once upon a time Democrats did play down and dirty, and that may have influenced the Republicans to get better at it than their competitors.

Rick Shenkman in his perceptive yet iconoclastic book Just How Stupid Are We?: Facing the Truth About the American Voter (Basic Books, 2008), reminds readers how John F. Kennedy and his handlers manipulated the outcome of the legendary first televised presidential debate between Kennedy and Richard Nixon in 1960. Nixon is remembered for losing the televised debate: he was sweating and looked unsteady.

According to Shenkman, however, Kennedy knew that Nixon was prone to sweating so his “media consigliere,” J. Leonard Reinsch, contrived to raise the studio temperature in the hours before the event to make sure that when the hot lights came on that the candidates would find themselves baking. It wasn’t accidental that Nixon also appeared unsteady on his feet; he had recently injured his knee getting out of a car. However, the Kennedy people knew this and wanted the candidates to stand during the hour-long debate. Adding to the debate’s legacy were reaction shots of Nixon mopping his face due to the temperature. Reinsch demanded that the director, Frank Slingland, take reaction shots and had threatened to tell reporters in the studio that “Democrats had been framed” if he didn’t.

It was that televised debated that won it for Kennedy. The Republicans, especially Nixon, are often remembered for packaging the presidency and politics and reducing it to the state that it is now, sound bites and vacuous imagery and negative ads. But as Shenkman observes:

…[I]t was actually the much-revered JFK who understood ahead of everybody else how to use TV to win over the voters. As a senator he got himself on Meet the Press to embellish his credentials as a Serious Person. He got himself and Jackie on Edward R. Murrow’s personality show, Person to Person, to show that he was a regular family man like Mr. and Mrs. Average Americans. He went on the Jack Paar Show to demonstrate his wit and charm.

In an article TV Guide in 1959, Kennedy professed that television could not be used to manipulate voters even as he used it for just that propose. “Honesty, vigor, compassion, intelligence—the presence or lack of these and other qualities make up what is called the candidate’s image,’” he wrote. “My own conviction,” he added, “is that these images or impressions are likely to be uncannily correct.” This was blather and Kennedy knew it. In the very years that he was making claims like this he was projecting an image of himself as a family man while he cheated regularly on his wife.

Nixon and the Republicans learned their lesson, as Joe McGinnis chronicled in The Selling of the President (1968), which looked at how Nixon repackaged himself as the “new” Nixon. Nixon speechwriter Ray Price said: “It’s not what’s there that counts, it’s what projected—and carrying it one step further, it’s not what he [Nixon] projects but what rather what the voter receives.”

Author tags:

books, tv, politics, nixon, kennedy

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