Richard Nixon reflects in his memoirs on the televised debates in 1960:
“An entirely new factor entered American political campaigning in 1960 with the first televised debates between the two presidential challengers. An incumbent seldom agrees willingly to debate his challenger, and I knew the debates would benefit Kennedy more than me by giving his views national exposure, which he needed more than I did… But there was no way I could refuse to debate without having Kennedy and the media turn my refusal into a central campaign issue…
Post-debate polls of the television audience gave the edge to Kennedy. Ralph McGill of the Atlanta Constitution, who supported Kennedy, observed that those listening to the debate on radio reported that I had the better of it. This was small comfort, since the television audience had been five to six times larger than the radio audience.
It is a devastating commentary on the nature of television as a political medium that what hurt me most in the first debate was not the substance of the encounter between Kennedy and me, but the disadvantageous contrast in our physical appearances. After the program ended, callers, including my mother, wanted to know if anything was wrong, because I did not look well.”
Don Hewitt, producer of the first debate in Chicago for CBS, recalls preparations in the television studio:
“I said to both of them, ‘Do you want some makeup?’ Kennedy, who didn’t need any, said no. Nixon heard him say no and decided, ‘I can’t have makeup because it will look like I got made up and he didn’t.’ He went off in another room and got made up with something called Lazy Shave, and looked like death warmed over… Four years later, I’m sitting in a makeup room in San Francisco [at the Republican Convention]. Richard Nixon is being made up to go out on the rostrum to introduce the [Republican presidential] nominee, Barry Goldwater. And I said, ‘You know, Mr. Nixon, if you’d let Franny here make you up four years ago, Barry Goldwater would be going out there now to introduce you.’ He looked in the mirror. And then he turned very slowly to me and he said, ‘You know, you’re probably right.’”
Martin Amis, who followed Ronald Reagan on the 1980 presidential campaign trail, later observed of his success:
“Two lines in American life, not quite parallel, were moving towards each other: Ronald Reagan and television. And then they met. In retrospect, it is not entirely frivolous to view the 1980 election as a vanished Reagan western, a lost outline for Death Valley Days [a 1950s TV series which Reagan had hosted]. Jimmy Carter was the prosing weakie who kept the store. John B Anderson [who ran as an independent] was the gesticulating frontier preacher who just held up the action. But Ronnie was the man who came riding into town, his head held high, not afraid to use his fists—well prepared, if asked to become the next sheriff of the United States. What is this televisual mastery of Reagan’s? It is a celebration of good intentions and unexceptional abilities. His style is one of hammy self-effacement, a wry dismay at his own limited talents and their drastic elevation.”
James Carville, Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign manager, recalls in his memoirs:
“We always thought Clinton practiced better than he played. It happens with lots of candidates. He had some good debates in the primary, but we had seen some staggering performances in the locker room and there was a feeling that he would sometimes leave his game there.
We worked all day Friday and Saturday, and he got a lot better fast. By noon on the second day we knew we were moving in the right direction. We were making our points a lot more relentlessly and in the allotted time frame. We were solid on when to look at the candidates, when to look at the press, when to look at the camera—the basic things you have to execute on television.
In a debate, the protocol I try to emphasise is, Answer, attack, explain. It does matter that you answer every question. People understand if you don’t answer the question, so do it first every time. Then attack your opponent, do some damage. Then explain your position. If you get cut short, you’re cut short on the explanation, not the answer. If you leave the voters feeling like you didn’t answer the question, you lose a lot.”
Rebecca Traister, journalist, observes Hillary Clinton’s campaign for the Democratic nomination (2008):
“Some men on television were antsy to get the Clinton bonfire started. One was Tucker Carlson, who seemed fixated on the possibility that the candidate might geld him. First he claimed, ‘Something about her feels castrating’; then ‘[When Clinton] comes on television, I involuntarily cross my legs’; finally he suggested, ‘The one thing we learned from the Lorena Bobbitt case… [is that] women are angry at men in a lot of ways.’ In one interview with Carlson, Cliff May, president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, called Clinton ‘a vaginal-American,’ prompting Carlson to ask, ‘Do you think that people who are voting on the basis of gender solidarity ought to be allowed to vote in a perfect world?’ He seemed unaware that his gyno-obsession with Clinton, alongside his castration anxiety, revealed his very own commitment to gender solidarity.
In December, when a CNN Headline News guest observed to the conservative host Glenn Beck that most senators see a president in the mirror when they shave, Beck replied, ‘Does that include Hillary?’ Then he mimed her shaving her chin and growling, ‘Gimme a pack of Kool cigarettes, will ya?’”