Eight Lessons for the Presidential Debates- page 100 | History | Smithsonian
07 Oct 1960, Washington, DC, USA --- Presidential candidates John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon shake hands after their televised debate of October 7, 1960. The two opponents continued their debate after the cameras had stopped. (© Bettmann / CORBIS)

Eight Lessons for the Presidential Debates

What are the key do's and don'ts the candidates should remember when campaigning for the White House?

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Lesson 8: You Are Always on Camera 

Seated on a stool during a town hall-style, three-way debate in October

1992 against Bill Clinton and Ross Perot, President George H.W. Bush looked out of his element. But when the cameras caught him checking his wristwatch, it was a telling image. Although the Bush camp attempted to say that the president was trying to signal that Perot was being given too much time, that was not the image conveyed. The president looked like he wanted to be anywhere else than on that stage. 

The Kennedy-Nixon debates transformed America’s presidential politics more than a half-century ago. Televised nationally to huge audiences, the series of four debates in 1960 cemented the critical role of the “boob tube” in selecting America’s Chief Executive.

Eight years later, as Nixon returned to run successfully against Hubert Humphrey, there were no debates. But television –and more importantly advertising—had changed everything. As a young Nixon campaign media advisor said, “This is the beginning of a whole new concept. This is the way they’ll be elected forevermore. The next guys will have to be performers.”

He was Roger Ailes, who launched the Fox News Network in 1996.

Kenneth C. Davis, author of Don’t Know Much About® History, has just published Don’t Know Much About® the American Presidents. He blogs regularly at www.dontknowmuch.com

© 2012 Kenneth C. Davis

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