Kevin Drum, in the midst of making the perfectly reasonable point that HDTV is going to change cosmetic standards for politicians, repeats an old Republican canard: that Richard Nixon actually outperformed JFK substantively in the 1960 debates, but lost because Kennedy looked better on TV. (Nixon’s “five-o’clock shadow” is said to have cost him the Presidency.)
Now it’s true that Nixon looked awfully thuggish on TV: nearly as thuggish as he actually was. And it’s true that listening to JFK raving about Quemoy and Matsu is pretty embarrassing if you’re a partisan Democrat.
But the source for the claim Kevin quotes is polling data showing that those who listened to the debate on radio thought Nixon had won, while those who watched on TV thought that Kennedy had won. But of course the two populations weren’t the same: non-TV households in 1960 were disproportionately older and more rural, two demographics Nixon won handily. That difference explains the response gap; there’s no actual evidence that the TV audience would have preferred Nixon had that same audience listened instead.
It would be interesting to make a list of the false historical claims the GOP has managed to enshrine as pseudo-fact. My two favorite examples:
* That Nixon actually carried Illinois in 1960 but public-spiritedly declined to challenge the results. In fact, Nixon sent Rogers C.B. Morton to Illinois to look into mounting a challenge, and Morton reported back that the GOP had stolen at least as many votes for Nixon downstate as Daley stole for JFK in Chicago.
* That the inflation of the 70s was Lyndon Johnson’s fault because he didn’t raise taxes to pay for the Vietnam War. In fact, most of the actual damage was done on Nixon’s watch, notably by smashing the Bretton Woods system and backing OPEC in raising oil prices so the Saudis and the Shah could buy lots of U.S.-made weaponry.
* That, back in the day, the Democratic urban political machines were uniquely the source of local political corruption. In fact, the suburban Republican machines (the “War Board” in Delaware County, the Nassau and Suffolk County machines) were at least as crooked; they were just less visible because their politics wasn’t closely followed by big-city papers, and they benefited from the old Progressive/goo-goo anti-machine mythos that focused on the ward-heeler rather than the influence peddler.
* That Eisenhower was a little bit befuddled, but completely honest, by contrast to that crook LBJ with his TV licenses. Somehow the question of how Eisenhower acquired his “farm” at Gettysburg never gets asked; apparently it was paid for by some real estate operators who got rich owning land in Colorado Springs when the Air Force Academy was built there.
If readers have more, I’ll happily post them as updates.
Update A reader writes:
You forgot the biggest historical “big lie” of them all: that Ronald Reagan won the Cold War by spending so much on armaments that the Soviets couldn’t keep up.