Analyzing Presidential Debates with Robert Shrum Part I: 1960

By Joseph Solomita, NYU Florence student

In the first part of a four part workshop series, Robert Shrum, political analyst, former Democratic strategist and Senior Fellow at the NYU Wagner School of Public Service, analyzed the 1960 presidential election.  It was an intimate gathering consisting of a dozen or so students in which Professor Shrum integrated clips from the first ever televised presidential debate into his presentation.  Keeping the format relaxed and informal encouraged the students to interject and ask questions throughout the hour and a half long dialogue.

The first set of clips shown were the opening statements of the two candidates, Senator John F. Kennedy and Vice President Richard Nixon. Shrum advised students to focus on both the content of the speeches as well as the demeanor of the two candidates.  Prior to playing the speeches, Shrum mentioned that then Vice President Nixon held a lead in the polls and was considered to be the more experienced candidate.  It was Senator Kennedy, however, who seemed to dominate the debate, thus marking it as a critical turning point in the race. Shrum would sporadically pause in the middle of some responses to point out the strengths and weakness of each candidate.

As Kennedy appeared to most of the students present to be well rehearsed, inspiring and presidential, Vice President Nixon came off as angry, pompous and disheveled.  Shrum explained some of the reasons behind these perceptions and gave the clear demeanor advantage to Kennedy.  It turns out that Nixon refused to wear makeup, while Kennedy showed up almost an hour early to get his hair and makeup perfected. Kennedy, who had already made a plethora of television appearances, seemed to work the stage flawlessly.  He also maintained eye contact with the camera, almost as if he was speaking directly to the American people on the other side of the screen, he controlled his composure throughout the debate and never reacted poorly to any of Nixon’s comments.  Even when he made the mistake of starting one of his answers from his seat, he managed to make his way to the podium without missing a beat.

Nixon, however, did not display as much grace.  He continued to roll his eyes and vigorously shake his head in discontent after many of Kennedy’s comments. Overall, he was not as familiar with being on camera and that was evident from the start.  He chose a suit that was the same color as the set, causing him to fade into the background of the black and white screen, he continued to keep eye contact with the panelists rather then the camera which made him seem distant to the viewers, and his lack of makeup caused immense perspiration throughout the debate. Nixon had also suffered pretty dramatic weight loss from a recent visit to the hospital and never got his suit adjusted accordingly.

Shrum did go on to analyze the content of both candidates’ responses in terms of substance and concluded that Kennedy had the stronger performance in that aspect as well.  However, it was Shrum’s meticulous examination of the candidates’ appearance, body language and mannerisms that seemed to intrigue the students most.

The second part of this workshop series will analyze the 1980 presidential election between incumbent Democratic President Jimmy Carter, his Republican opponent, former California Governor Ronald Reagan, and Republican Congressman John B. Anderson, who ran as an independent. This event will be taking place next Wednesday, March 6, in Villa Sassetti.  For more information or to RSVP email us at lapietra.dialogues@nyu.edu or call 055 5007202.

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