“[P]olitical success on television is not, unfortunately, limited only to those who deserve it. It is a medium which lends itself to manipulation, exploitation and gimmicks. It can be abused by demagogs, by appeals to emotion and prejudice and ignorance.”— John F. Kennedy, “A Force That Has Changed the Political Scene,” TV Guide, Nov. 14, 1959
No politician, in the first couple of decades after the arrival of television, benefited from the new medium anywhere near as much as John F. Kennedy. He was its master as surely as Franklin Roosevelt fully exploited the mass communication possibilities of radio. His good looks and self-confidence on camera helped offset any advantages in experience that Vice President Richard Nixon might have enjoyed in their broadcast debates, and his witty exchanges with reporters at press conferences solidified his reputation for charisma.
In this context, it was fascinating for me to read his ambivalent reflections on the mass medium a year before his election to the Presidency. On the one hand, he grasped, well before many of the political professionals of his time, that old-time orators like William Jennings Bryan would not thrive in the much more “cool” environment of TV. He had thoroughly absorbed the lessons unconsciously taught by fellow Senator Joseph McCarthy, whose anti-Communist crusade began to wither as soon as television cameras pitilessly exposed his brow-beating of witnesses before his committee.
On the other hand, he clearly remained troubled by the possibility of some new dark figure—in the words of William Butler Yeats, some “rough beast, its hour come at last.” Even as he praised television’s capacity to block party bosses from hand-picking “an unknown, unappealing or unpopular [nominee] in the traditional ‘smoke-filled room,’" he realized, as the above quote indicates, that television could be manipulated as well as mastered.
JFK cited the presence of public-relations professionals and the high cost of commercials as key dangers. But he never foresaw the rise of a reality-show TV businessman entering living rooms week after week, nor the deadened shock that viewers would experience when, day after day, that same vulgarian would ride roughshod over intrinsic codes of civility that politicians had long abided by. Nor could he imagine that anyone outside the realms of politics or the military could attain the most powerful office in the world, responsible for what he would call, in his inaugural address, "defending freedom in its hour of maximum danger."
JFK thought he was seeing the twilight of “the slick or bombastic orator, pounding the table and ringing the rafters.” In fact, the victory of Donald Trump indicates that, using new methods in the same old medium, such a demagogue is more empowered than ever before. Adlai Stevenson termed Richard Nixon “McCarthy with a white collar.” Trump can be thought of as McCarthy with a billion dollars in the bank and no scruples about supplying a 24-hour news cycle that requires something new—and outrageous—to fill its empty hours.