“When the politicians complain that TV turns the proceedings into a circus, it should be made clear that the circus was already there, and that TV merely demonstrated that not all the performers are well-trained.”
Edward R, Murrow - 1959
There’s an old joke: “Washington DC is Hollywood for ugly people.” These days it would be more appropriate to say it’s “TV for ugly people.” And if you’ve been paying attention you know that none of it has been getting any more attractive lately.
I’m old enough to remember the first televised presidential debates. Featuring Democratic Senator John Fitzgerald Kennedy pitted against Republican Vice President Richard Milhous Nixon, the debates spanned four nights in
1960. The younger candidate Kennedy grasped the importance of “looking good” on TV and sat still for the makeup artist and hair dresser. Nixon eschewed these newfangled doings and appeared onscreen with a five o’clock shadow, sweating, disheveled and looking like, well-Tricky Dick. When polled, folks who listened to the debate on the radio generally thought Nixon prevailed. On the other hand, Kennedy was favored two-to-one among folks watching the debates on TV. ‘Twas beauty killed the beast.
Sadly, the next big political happening on the small screen was JFK’s funeral. All three networks expanded their usual 15 minute newscasts to half hour long segments covering the assassination and funeral of the young president. The newcasters kept respectfully silent through most of the funeral, letting the heartbreaking images speak for themselves. The First Lady standing with her hand on her husband’s coffin. Jack Jr. saluting his dad’s casket as it passed slowly by. I’m getting misty as I write this.
Fast forward to something a little more light-hearted: the televised Watergate hearings. This dog-and-pony show burst upon the boob tube in May of 1973 when I was a freshman at LSU. The Student Union had a “TV Room.” This was a rather small (15’ X 15’ ?) room with a color television set in a corner for all of us wretched students who couldn’t afford the big ticket item for our dorm rooms. I used to pop in there occasionally to catch up on the news. There would typically be five or six students slumped over in the horribly uncomfortable plastic chairs staring at the flickering screen like zombies.
This changed drastically when the televised Watergate hearings got cranked up. I became part of a loose group of “impeachment rats” who spent every evening watching the proceedings. As the hearings progressed the room got more and more crowded. For 51 nights the drama unfolded - and what a cast of characters. We had G. Gordon Liddy and John “Rat Fink” Dean. Who could forget Rose Mary “The Contorted” Woods, who could accidently erase audiotape in one room while answering the phone in another? And there was Senior Senator Sam Ervin whose thick North Carolina accent made him sound like Foghorn Leghorn on airplane glue. There was much mirth in the TV Room - until Nixon was forced to resign.
There was nothing funny about watching a defeated and humiliated Richard Nixon waving goodbye while boarding Air Force One for the last time.
When it was announced that President Gerald Ford granted Nixon a full and unconditional pardon I, like many Americans, was shocked and angered. When Ford died in 1997 I revisited his decision to let Nixon off the hook. Americans were deeply divided over the war in Southeast Asia. We had been battered and abused by the Watergate scandal. Having to watch our former president endure a humiliating criminal trial would have been excruciating for everyone. I believe Ford chose the lesser of two evils. We badly needed to heal.
As we go to press another drama is being played out on TV.