Monday, October 10, 2016

Debate and Switch

I’ve mentioned here a couple of times how I’m once more teaching an American Studies class called “Tricky Dick: Richard Nixon, Poker, and Politics.” The class covers Nixon’s drama-filled political career, with a bit of emphasis (especially early on) on his poker playing.

We end up spending a fair amount of time in the class remarking upon how tactics used in campaigns and/or while serving in office often can resemble or at least recall poker strategies. The course additionally provides a detailed introduction to American political history from just after WWII to the mid-1970s -- the start of the Cold War era up through the end of the Vietnam conflict. And since during that period Nixon was a vice president for eight years, ran for president three times and won twice, and served as president for five-and-a-half years, there’s a lot of focus on the White House and the presidency’s centrality to American politics.

I’d never taught the course during a presidential election, and so had been looking forward to the chance to do so this fall semester. We’ve had some kind of uncanny moments already, such as when I happened to have assigned a viewing of the first debate between John F. Kennedy and Nixon the same week the of the first debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.

There have also been opportunities to discuss some of the references to Nixon that have come up both in coverage of the campaigns and even from representatives of each major party. Of course, any comparison of a candidate to Nixon is understandably meant as a criticism, especially when the comparison comes from the Democrats or Republicans.

For instance, not long ago Trump was attempting to liken Clinton’s email saga to Watergate. Meanwhile Democratic VP candidate Tim Kaine compared Trump’s apparent encouragement to the Russians to hack the Democratic National Committee’s servers to the Watergate break-ins, too.

There have been other moments when we’ve been encouraged to bring up the current race when discussing things like Nixon’s early hard-fought campaigns (and their “dirty tricks”), the Alger Hiss spy case, the “fund crisis” and Nixon’s “Checkers” speech, and the ’60 campaign and election. (We’re only now getting to 1968.)

The whole “#TrumpTape” craziness over the weekend -- and rumors of additional tapes -- again somewhat evokes what became the major issue of Watergate, namely the revelation of the secret White House audio recordings and subsequent, protracted legal battle to force the Nixon administration release them.

But truthfully, most of the parallels tend to feel more than a little forced, I think. Why? Because thanks to the Republicans’ unbelievable choice for a nominee, this year’s presidential race is essentially sui generis, meaning any comparison tends to fall apart as we try vainly to pretend Trump even faintly resembles the weakest “real” candidate ever put forward by a major party.

As you might imagine, when my students watch and comment on the 1960 debate between RMN and JFK they are noticing many, many differences with what they are seeing today. Indeed, the contrast couldn’t be more stark, starting with the respect shown between the candidates, the civility of the proceedings, and the generally elevated level of discourse.

If you’ve never seen any of the four debates from 1960, go watch the first 10 minutes of the first one to see what my students are talking about when listing these differences. Then think about the unpleasant, badly moderated, stress-inducing and mostly useless ordeal a lot of us endured last night.

I mean, they call them “debates,” and for the sake of convenience I guess that’s what we have to refer to them as, too. But that’s obviously not what they are.

Future historians will inevitably point back to 2016 and show how what we ended up with this year could be traced back to that first televised debate on September 26, 1960, the night “style” began to challenge “substance” in a more vivid, conspicuous way than had been realized previously when it came to presidential politics. Might be easier to show the connection a half-century from now, although some are already working on making the argument, I’m sure.

Meanwhile for those of us living through 2016, it’s getting harder and harder to see any connection with the past -- never mind worrying about what the future holds.

Photos: “Presidential seal,” Ted, CC BY-SA 2.0; Kennedy-Nixon First Presidential Debate, 1960, JFK Library.

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