Something has been lost, recently. Call it innocence or naivete.
In ancient times, a national leader was a mythic figure. The average citizen never caught a glimpse of the sovereign, except maybe as a stylized sculpture or a face on a coin. This gulf between the commoner and ruler inspired reverence and fear. The leader was no mere mortal. In fact, often, the King or Emperor was a God. A lesser God, perhaps, but still a deity.
The American President is hardly a God, but the Executive Office yet holds an element of majesty. Our great leaders are enshrined as statues and on currency. Even when we disagree with a President’s policies, we still pay great respect to the position (if not the person).
I think this is all about to change. Thanks to the miracle of television, the distance between the electorate and the President is negligible. Watching Senator Kennedy and Vice President Nixon spar in the second televised debate last night, I felt no sense of awe, no feeling that these were extraordinary people. I might as well have been watching two fellows compete for the mayorship or a seat on the school board.
Perhaps this is a good thing. After all, the President is a human being, and we want a human to represent us, don’t we? Still, I can’t help feeling a pang of regret at the close of a (rose-tinted) era.
This may have been exacerbated by the format of the second debate, which was quite different from that of the first. In the first contest, both candidates were allowed long opening and closing statements. This afforded them a bit of dignity and gave a detached air to the proceedings. The second debate was a more impromptu affair–strictly a question and answer session. The candidates addressed each other far more directly. They weren’t talking to us anymore–they were talking near us.
The Nixon I saw last night was far more poised and rested than the one I saw just two weeks ago. Kennedy, on the other hand, seemed a little lost and occasionally shrill. As for the content of their words, both said a lot of compelling things, but without an army of fact-checkers, it is difficult for me to gauge their value. Here are some highlights:
Regarding foreign policy, management of which is perhaps the President’s greatest duty, Kennedy seemed to take a conciliatory tone toward the East. He conceded that U2 spy plane flights are necessary for national security, but that lying about the flights caused the recent Summit in Paris to fail. The Senator also described the Taiwanese islands of Quemoy and Matsu, lying just a few miles off the coast of Red China, as indefensible and that World War Three should not be started over them should Mao make a move to grab them.
On the other hand, Kennedy stated that America must be militarily and economically stronger before heading back to the Summit table. Kennedy asserted that our national prestige was at an all-time low, and that we had all but abandoned Latin America and Africa to the Communists. When President, he promised, he would address these issues.
Nixon, of course, disagreed vehemently. He noted that eight Latin American dictators had been toppled during the Eisenhower administration (though what role we had in that, he didn’t say). The Vice President asserted, and I think he’s right, that Khruschev never intended to attend the Summit in good faith because the Premier had no chance of getting what we wanted: a resolution of the Berlin issue favorable to the Soviet Union. Nixon drew a sharp line around Quemoy and Matsu. He also contended that the situation in Cuba might yet be salvaged. The Vice President noted that 600 million people had gone behind the Iron Curtain during the Truman Presidency, but during the Eisenhower term, Communism had been stopped in Indochina, in Formosa (Taiwan), and in Lebanon.
On the issue of Civil Rights, which neither candidate had really discussed in the first debate, Nixon stated that he would pursue equal opportunity employment in government contracts and support federal spurring of education integration. He urged the end of discrimination not just because it is right, but because it gives fodder to Khruschev to denounce our country.
Kennedy’s response was, essentially, that Nixon and Eisenhower might pay lip service to ending racial discrimination, but neither of them are really serious. The Vice President replied that his efforts had been hamstrung by a lack of support in Congress, and in any event, Kennedy could not be trusted so long as he retained pro-segregation Lyndon Johnson as his running mate.
On the economy, Nixon’s statements were contradictory. On the one hand, he asserted that the country is not going into a recession, but should it, he would stimulate the private sector with tax cuts without increasing federal spending. Later, however, Nixon said he would raise taxes, even as early as next year, if he felt it would be necessary to balance the budget.
Kennedy stated, as he did in the last debate, that the key to improving the national economy is federal stimulus. Medical care for the aged under Social Security. More financial aid to the poor. Federal funding of education. He maintained that his platform would not require increased taxes and that he was opposed to raising taxes in the near future for fear of increasing unemployment and causing deflation. Nevertheless, the American people, he said, should be prepared to pay more taxes, and to otherwise make sacrifices, to preserve and enhance the nation as a whole.
Distilled to the essence, Nixon touted the record of the Eisenhower administration and promised more of the same: slow, steady progress. Kennedy castigated the Republicans (while refraining from directly attacking the President) and claimed that only the Democrats could bring real change.
There are two more debates in this series. Now that we have seen Kennedy and Nixon on both strong and weak days, I’d be interested to see if the debates sway significant numbers from one camp to another. Either way, I think the experience of watching the two candidates struggle their way through hours of verbal wrestling has gone a long way toward reducing these would-be Titans to simple humans.
The Bronze Age of Heroes is over. The Iron Age has begun.