JFK and television

[Working backward from the year 2000 toward America’s beginnings.]

JFK

After he was killed, this American president’s photograph could be found in people’s homes all over the world. This gringo president created wild enthusiasm in a brief tour of Central America in the summer of 1963, when only a few years earlier, then-vice president Richard Nixon had nearly been attacked by a hostile mob in Caracas. Yes, part of it may have been that for the first time ever, an American president shared their Roman Catholicism, but that wouldn’t explain the Kennedy-mania that swept Europe and other countries.

This rich man’s son found his way into hearts all around the globe, as people reacted to his image, his intelligence, his charm, and – not least – his policies and promise. At first he was seen (by the West, at least) as another defender of freedom, in the tradition of Wilson, FDR, Truman and Eisenhower. But in the last year of his short presidency, he transcended that role as it became clear that he was a man of reason who hoped to bring the Cold War to a peaceful conclusion. The world was dreadfully tired of being terrified, and bored by the pretenses of each ideology to be the only possible way forward. Kennedy was seen as a firm, if belated, defender of human rights at home, and as a forward-looking proponent of intelligent compromise abroad, an optimist without illusions, as his wife once termed him. In those qualities, I think the world saw America at its best.

After he was murdered, his successor represented less a continuation of Kennedy’s path-breaking new approaches than a reversion to FDR’s New Deal domestically and to reflexive Cold War policies internationally. Lyndon Johnson probably meant well – don’t most people? – but there was never a time when you would have found his photograph hanging on people’s walls.

Of course, when you say Kennedy, you think television, for it was television that allowed him to have his terrific impact. From the days of his presidential campaign in 1960 through the ghastly days of his assassination and funeral, the world responded to his telegenic presence, and that of his wife and even their little children. In 1960, those who heard the first Nixon-Kennedy presidential debates on radio thought Nixon had the better of the exchange, but television made it a Kennedy victory, indeed a turning-point, because the image that came across people’s TV tubes was not of a callow inexperienced junior Senator, as his opponents wanted to portray him, but as a relaxed, confident, authoritative statesman, as he wanted to be seen. It was television that allowed him to speak directly to the nation and the world to appeal to reason, whether the subject was civil rights or Soviet missiles in Cuba or the signing of the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. And it was television that turned the world into participants in his final tragic moments and their aftermath. So let us turn, as did the world, to the invention that some saw as the world’s greatest communication tool and others saw only as the “boob tube.”

Television

They were both right. This American invention of the 1920s, not put into commercial production until after the second world war had ended, had a totally transformative impact on world culture, but with distinctly mixed effects. Like most American technology of the 20th century, it was technically superb and was continually improved upon, as it went from small black-and-white kinescopes with nine-inch screens to full-color sets with screens that stretched several feet in height and width. But, also like most American technology of the 20th century, the uses it was put to were often trivial or even harmful.

In 1962, a commissioner of the Federal Communications Commission, Newton Minnow by name, criticized commercial television as “a vast wasteland” of mediocre programming, repetitive, imitative, and unimaginative. He was so right. In television’s earliest years, unless you lived in one of the largest cities, your TV fare was restricted to a choice among three national commercial networks, perhaps augmented by an anemic public-television channel. Even the coming of cable TV (which came, at first, to areas that could not receive good broadcast quality) did little to expand the choice.

Communications-satellite links, and the installation of high-capacity fiber-optic cable in much of the urbanized part of the nation, broke the monopoly of the three networks. Now you could receive hundreds of channels. This transformed the situation, because now a single channel could specialize on one subject, day in and (increasingly) day out. Thus, news channels, sports channels, movie channels, shopping channels (!) etc. If you really wanted to watch Star Trek re-runs 24 hours a day, and you owned a TV remote, you could.

You could, and so could the world, and so American television flooded the world, just as American movies had done, beginning in the 1930s. in effect, perpetual free advertising for a certain version of the American way of life. It had an incalculable effect, but a big one. Some came to hate the “Coca Cola Culture,” others fell in love with a vision of a way of life they never otherwise would have dreamed of, and of course many people were pulled two ways. The one indisputable thing about television is that it changed everything it touched, and it touched everything.

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