Clinton needs to review her history the 1960 debates show that personality matters
By Bonnie K. Goodman
Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton is crying sexism after Republicans criticized her appearance during the NBC News Commander-in-Chief forum on Wednesday evening, Sept. 7, 2016; the problem is Clinton does not know her history. If Clinton knew her presidential campaign history, she would realize that “style” matters even more than “substance” in campaigns ever since the first televised debates in 1960 where Democrat nominee John F. Kennedy went head to head with Republican nominee Richard M. Nixon. Clinton’s comment only show one thing, GOP nominee Donald Trump is right; Clinton is playing the woman card too often.
After the forum, both candidates received lackluster reviews for their performances. The Republican National Committee Chair Reince Priebus took issue with Clinton and tweeted: “@HillaryClinton was angry + defensive the entire time – no smile and uncomfortable – upset that she was caught wrongly sending our secrets.”
Right away, Twitter erupted calling Priebus’ comment as sexist. Clinton’s campaign responded with a Tweet, “Actually, that’s just what taking the office of President seriously looks like.” The next morning, on Thursday, Sept. 8, Clinton gave a short press conference at the Westchester County Airport in New York where she elaborated working the victim angle. Clinton declared, “I’m going to let all of you ponder that last question. I think there will be a lot of Ph.D. theses and popular journalism writing on that subject for years to come.”
Clinton reporters her demeanor was because “we were talking about serious issues last night.” Continuing her argument about substance over style, saying, “I had a very short window of time in that event last night to convey the seriousness with which I would approach the issues of our country,” she said, before turning the table on her opponents.
Clinton chose to mock her opponent Republican nominee Donald Trump, whose comments drew criticism for substance, but he gave an animated performance that played more to television and the audience. Clinton criticized, “Trump chose to talk about his deep admiration and support for Vladimir Putin. Maybe he did it with a smile, and I guess the RNC would have liked that.”
Clinton might have thought she was taking the high road, emphasizing substance is claiming sexism when any mention of style or personality comes up, but all it shows it how much she does not know her history and the way the presidential campaign game is played. All she needed to do was go back to the first televised presidential debates in 1960 with Massachusetts Senator John F. Kennedy and then-Vice President Richard Nixon.
Both candidates were young and rising political stars, but Nixon had years more experience and accomplishments than his opponent. The first one-hour Sept. 26 debate, contrasted the two candidates in ways, where it cemented one’s frontrunner status and the other’s demise. Kennedy napped before the event at the Chicago TV station, and appeared rested, tanned, healthy, wore a dark suit, he smiled and spoke directly into the camera. Nixon, in contrast, had a recent knee injury was hospitalized and lost a lot a weight, it showed. Nixon’s gray suit looked too big for him, his makeup caked on, he perspired the makeup dripped; his beard was a shadow, he looked unwell and spoke towards his opponent as opposed the camera.
Seventy million Americans viewed the first debate; two-thirds of the population either watched or listened to the debates on the radio. Those that listened to the debates thought Nixon fared better; his responses were full of substance, facts, and statistics backing his arguments and policy proposals. In contrast, those viewing the debate on TV thought Kennedy won because he mixed style and substance and just appeared healthier and more presidential. The debate raised Kennedy’s profile and was the major turning point in what was a close election.
Nixon faced similar complaints about his demeanor that first debate as Clinton did in the forum. When it was a race between men, the issue was not one of sexism but perception and the new technology. Critics complained about the “cosmetic aspect” television brought to politics and the presidential campaign. Historians now routinely blame Nixon’s composure in comparison to Kennedy’s as the reason he eventually lost the election by such a slim margin. Even Nixon admitted in his memoir “Six Crises,” “I should have remembered that ‘a picture is worth a thousand words.'”
The debates influenced politics so much that candidates refrained from them for 16 years, the next televised debates was in 1976 between Democrat Jimmy Carter and incumbent Republican Gerald Ford. Alan Schroeder, the author of “Presidential Debates: 40 Years of High-Risk TV,” indicated “The 1960 debates are the turning point from retail politics –glad handing and meeting everyone face to face — to the politics of mass media.” While, Presidential historian Robert Gilbert told CNN, “Since the age of television, presidents have become like movie stars.” Clinton cannot just cry sexism when she is not playing a game that is over 55 years old properly.
The problem with today’s world is the over politically correct notions that if an unflattering comment is made to a minority could it is discriminatory and derogatory when it is not necessarily. In Hillary’s case, it is not, and if she wants to play the game fairly she has to take the punches regardless of her sex. The Hill noted, “Presidential elections are often decided on personality instead of specific policies.” Personality and style often trump just substance is the consensus among historians and pundits something Clinton has repeatedly failed to learn.
Clinton has to realize her problem is not that she is a woman but her personality; she has never truly come across as warm and friendly throughout her time in the political limelight and always had a likeability problem. During her husband Bill Clinton’s first presidential campaign in 1992 and in early in his presidency, she was not deemed traditional first lady material, looking to be a political force rather than the feminine role model the country long expected. It was Bill’s outgoing personality that shone and resonated with the voters and the public.
As Hillary became that type of first lady, the warm, children loving homemaker her star rose, when Bill’s numerous scandals let her be the wronged wife she thrived riding her newfound popularity to a Senate seat in New York and her place on the world political stage. Again, Clinton faced the likeability issue when she tried the first time for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2008 and her place in the White House. Clinton was long deemed the frontrunner, but then bursting on the scene was the younger and enigmatic Junior Senator from Illinois Barack Obama.
Obama’s whose quest to become the first African-American president eclipsed her journey to break the glass ceiling and become the first woman president. Obama exposed their differences in the last debate before the New Hampshire primary, when Clinton was asked about her “personality deficit” responding Clinton said “Well, that hurts my feelings” but admitted Obama is “very likable,” Obama responded, “You’re likable enough, Hillary.”
Clinton was later caught crying; she parlayed her emotions to win the New Hampshire primary by 12 percent of the vote. The sentence deemed sexist was truthful and summed her ongoing problem with voters, her likeability and personality. Where Clinton stressed her experience, Obama passionately spoke of the future, “hope, and change.” In the end, however, personality and Obama won out.
In 2016, Clinton is again facing a larger than life personality in the form of GOP nominee Donald Trump, a business mogul and veteran reality star, who knows how to play the cameras and the press. Whether his comments are controversial or not Trump monopolizes the news cycle. Again Clinton is facing the substance versus style debate and her demeanor at the NBC forum is just an indication of the problems she will face during the debates.
Julian Zelizer, a professor of history and public policy at Princeton University, noted Clinton’s “challenge remains the same as it always has been – show voters who she is and reveal the person beneath the candidate. To win people’s trust and to generate enthusiasm, she has to let some of her character come out.” The likability factor has always been “what she needs to work on.” When Clinton or her supporters cry sexism they are only taking the easy way out; it is time for them to realize the problem is Clinton, not anybody else.
Sabato, Larry, and Howard R. Ernst. Encyclopedia of American Political Parties and Elections. New York: Facts On File, 2006.