Because we’re going to be hearing a lot about debates for the next couple of weeks, I thought this would be a good time to revisit the nation’s first televised presidential debate.
It happened on September 26, 1960 at CBS station WBBM in Chicago. Vice President Richard Nixon took on his rival, Senator John F. Kennedy, who was largely unknown at that time.
There were no memorable zingers that came out of the debate. Both men were skilled campaigners and had well-rehearsed pitches to offer the American people. That does not mean, however, that the debate was a standoff. It wasn’t. Kennedy made a much bigger impact, causing Don Hewitt, the director of the debates, to say when it was all over: “We just elected a president of the United States, and it isn’t even election day.”*
Why did Kennedy make the bigger impact?
Kennedy, who had spent the afternoon relaxing at his hotel, showed up tanned and toned and fresh. Nixon, who’d been keeping a grueling campaign schedule, had a five o’clock shadow, a nervous manner, and kept wiping sweat off of his face. Before the debate he was given an opportunity to have some makeup applied (which would have helped tremendously), but declined because he was afraid the public would hear about it and judge him harshly. Experts say that Nixon also wore a suit that was the wrong color. The debate was shown in black and white, which meant that Kennedy’s dark suit offered a more striking contrast than Nixon’s lighter colored suit.
During the next three debates held on October 7, 13, and 21, Nixon fared much better. And yes, he wore makeup all three of those times. But the damage had already been done and he never recovered.
Appearances. Ignore them at your peril.
You may think that how things are is more important than how they look. You must remember, however, that how things look is how they are in the minds of people. Nixon looked shifty and nervous, so he was shifty and nervous. Even if he wasn’t, he was.
Appearances are powerful and persuasive. This why the Bible tells us to avoid even the appearance of evil. (1 Thessalonians 5:22) Before you do anything, ask yourself if your actions could leave the wrong impression, causing people to believe things about you, your faith, or your God that aren’t true.
I learned this lesson when I was in my twenties.
I was to meet a friend at our favorite fishing hole. He had asked me to pick up some nightcrawlers on the way, which I agreed to do before I realized that the only place to get them was a liquor store at the edge of town. Rather sheepishly, I ran in and bought the nightcrawlers which, to my utter dismay, were put into a brown paper bag.
The following Sunday at church I was pulled aside by one of our deacons and asked why I was coming out of a liquor store carrying a brown paper bag. (He happened to be driving by at that exact moment. Wouldn’t you know?) He believed me when I said I had only purchased some nightcrawlers, and even made some good-natured jokes about it. But he also pointed out that I needed to be more aware of appearances in the future.
We all do.
For further reflection read Philippians 2:14-15 and Colossians 3:17.
* Joe Garner, Stay Tuned (Garner Creative Concepts, 2002), 64-66