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50 Years Since a Week That Still Shapes Our Lives

September 27, 2010

According to this morning’s USA Today, yesterday marked 50 years since the first Kennedy-Nixon televised debate. While it would be 26 years until Ford and Carter renewed the tradition, televised debates now occur in every presidential and vice-presidential election, and in many congressional and gubernatorial races too. Along with letting voters size up candidates in the same room at the same time, these debates have given us Nixon’s five o’clock shadow, Ford’s claim that Poland in 1976 was not under Soviet domination, Reagan’s “Are you better off now than you were four years ago?”  and “There you go again” in 1980, Lloyd Bentsen’s “I knew Jack Kennedy, and you sir, are no Jack Kennedy” in 1988 (to fellow VP candidate Dan Quayle), Ross Perot’s “I’m all ears” in 1992, and both “Joe the Plumber” and Sarah Palin’s winking “You betcha” in 2008. That’s a lot of history in a handful of televised hours.

One reason there wasn’t another debate until 1976 is that most pundits believe the first Kennedy-Nixon debate swung the election to JFK. He won the popular vote by 0.1%, and his electoral win was the closest in half a century, so small distinctions between the candidates could make a huge difference. Voters who listened to that first debate on the radio thought it was a draw, but those watching on TV gave JFK a significant win. The reasons are now famous: JFK relaxed in Florida for a few days before, and showed up tan and rested; Nixon was recovering from illness, had continued to campaign until just before the debate, wore no makeup (hence the visible five o’clock shadow), and wore a suit nearly the same color as the backdrop behind him–all of which made him look weaker than his rival. And thus was birthed Camelot, the frequent televised presidential press conference (Obama, please, a little more JFK here and a little less Ike), and the modern presidential debate.

According to Saturday’s NY Times, tomorrow will mark 50 years since the event that led to arguably the greatest sports essay ever written, John Updike’s “Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu.” Updike was one of barely 10,000 fans at Ted Williams’ last game for the Boston Red Sox, the game where Williams used his last at bat famously hit a home run (his 521st; the only reason he didn’t hit 700 was because he gave six years of his prime to serve his country) and even more famously would not tip his cap to the crowd afterward. Updike, who never wrote again about sports, could not have known that he had launched a form of essay, transcending game recaps to place sports in deeper literary and cultural contexts.

That’s one helluva week.

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