Becoming JFK: A Profile in Communication

By Vito N. Silvestri | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 19
A Television Presidency

[TV is] . . . A force that has changed the political scene.

John F. Kennedy

By 1960, 80 percent of American households had a television set; by 1962, the number had grown to 90 percent. The medium brought the image and the world into the nation's living rooms; and among other things, it changed the public's awareness of the presidency. Although Truman and Eisenhower had made television appearances, it was Kennedy who became the most visible. He was by far the most accessible president Americans had ever experienced. Not only did he use television more inventively and more often than his predecessors, but he also set an example for the public to evaluate other candidates and presidents.


TELEVISION: A TWO-EDGED SWORD

Television can enhance a candidate's message, showing the best of one's persona in a few seconds, or it can destroy the public's opinion of a person who misspeaks or presents a questionable image. As a medium, television operates simultaneously as both public communication and interpersonal communication. It provides accessibility to the greatest possible mass audience, bringing an immediate image and message into the privacy of each viewer's home.

In presidential campaigns, the primacy of the television message is credibility-based not solely on the substance of the message but also on the candidate's nonverbal behavior. As television increased its hold on the public, for the first time in history how one looked, one's voice quality, nonverbal behavior, and personal appearance became equal to the message. The combined effect of these elements created or destroyed the "image" of credibility.

There was a goodness-of-fit between Kennedy and television. As his career had matured, so had television. It became integral to his debates with Nixon and even more important to his press conferences and interviews, as

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