More greatest tales of past White House debates!


Dick Nixon won on the radio: On Saturday, we may have overstated a bit concerning the press corps’ Standard Tales from Past Presidential Debates.

We said there were maybe a dozen such tales. The best number may be smaller.

Last Friday night, Anderson Cooper rattled a list of the Standard Tales the children haul out at this time of the year. These are the seven he treated:
The mainstream press corps’ Standard Tales from Past Presidential Debates
1960: Richard Nixon “sweat[s] profusely under the hot studio lights.”
1976: Gerald Ford makes a ridiculous statement about Soviet domination of Poland.
1980: Ronald Reagan wins the election by saying to Carter, in jocular fashion, “There you go again.”
1984: Reagan cinches re-election by telling a joke about Mondale’s age.
1988: Michael Dukakis fails to punch Bernie Shaw right in the nose.
1992: President Bush “deliberately looks at his watch,” blowing his chance for re-election.
2000: Al Gore “sighs over and over again. And Bush, the underdog, surprises by winning the debate and of course, the election.”
As matters stand, those have become the Magnificent Seven—the mainstream press corps’ Standard Tales from Past Presidential Debates. To complete the official list, you must include “You’re no Jack Kennedy” and “Who am I? Why am I here?” from vice-presidential debates.

Looking at those standard tales, you get a dispiriting look at the way our official “journalism” works. To judge from this official list, there has never been a winning claim about some serious matter during a White House debate!

With the exception of Gerald Ford’s gaffe, all the iconic events involve “body language,” quips and jokes, or matters of physical appearance and perceived temperament. This provides an unfortunate map to the soul of the modern “press corps.”

These are the moments your “journalists” recall when they think back on our White House debates! Put another way, those are the moments they and their colleagues chose to stress in the aftermath of these debates.

Exaggerating wildly, they love to say that Gore “perpetually sighed” in that first debate with Bush. They don’t say what he was sighing about. And they cling to their childish tales, no matter if they’ve been debunked.

The basic facts will get rearranged to give their silly novels more punch. Example:

Cooper’s claim to the side, Candidate Bush didn’t “win the debate” at which Candidate Gore so memorably sighed. But here’s a more famous example:

On September 7, two AP reporters filed a preview of this year’s election. In their section on presidential debates, Donna Cassata and Connie Cass began with a hoary old tale:
CASSTA AND CASS (9/7/12): With debates, it's important to watch as well as listen. Despite hours of study and practice to get their best lines down pat, it's sometimes actions, not words that prove memorable. Remember 1960, when people listening on the radio were certain Richard Nixon had won a debate, while those watching TV awarded it squarely to John F. Kennedy.
Nixon won on the radio! He only lost among TV viewers because of his lousy makeup! This hoary old tale was debunked long ago, but many reporters still recite it. The AP was still advancing this groaner at the start of last month.

Once the chimps have a story they like, that hoary old tale never dies. In the case of their Standard Tales from Past White House Debates, this means that the journalists must execute two key assignments:

They must erase the role they themselves played in creating this Famous Debate Event. And they must avoid the basic facts that undermine their preferred tale.

Tomorrow, we’ll see Cooper pretend that public reaction made these famous events so important. In all cases, these silly old groaners must be blamed on reactions of the voters.

According to edicts of Hard Pundit Law, these famous events became so important because of the way the public reacted. As always:

If you hear the press corps tell it, the press corps itself wasn’t there!

Dick Nixon looked great on the radio: Did Nixon win that debate on the radio? There's no real evidence that this occurred.

For a brief treatment of the debunking, see THE DAILY HOWLER, 9/26/08.


  1. Frankly, I don't know how you're able to watch Anderson Cooper, Brian Williams or any other of the airheads consistently. When it comes to debates, they're like grannies in a theater who have no idea what's going on in the movie or what the actors are talking about, making comments like "she's so cute", "ooh, he looks angry" or "I don't like him, he's rude".

    1. Remember, there is nothing that the "media" fears more than one guy running away with the election.

      And of course, there is nothing more that ersatz pundits like more than identifying that one itty, bitty thing that turned a close election in the direction of the winner to the exclusion of everything else.

      Somerby is guilty of that himself with his continual harping on the "War on Gore". A factor? Indeed. But one of many, many, many factors.

    2. That's some funny shit, and even funnier because it's accurate. But a lot of that is because of the media people trying to pander to their audience, many of whom ARE "grannies" sitting there judging people based on the way they look or sound. A lot of this is mutually reinforcing, of course. I work with a couple of women who loved Sarah Palin, until it became obvious she was such a boob that even the media people stopped pretending otherwise. Now they hate Palin, find her every mannerism annoying, and have switched their allegiance to ... Michelle Bachmann, that paragon of smooth, even tempered sanity. I have no doubt that if Bachmann is ever accurately portrayed by the media, they'll switch on her, too, and find someone else to love. So the media people are often trying to figure out how this or that will play on Main Street, or can be made to play on Main Street, and adjusting their performance accordingly. They aren't always dumb; sometimes they just play dumb to better connect with their audience.

  2. The debunking of Nixon's radio victory is wrong IMHO. Here's the debunking argument.

    2/3 of 178 radio listeners said Nixon won. The debunkers claim that a sample of 178 is too small. I don't agree. With a huge 2 to 1 margin, it's very, very unlikely that sampling error was large enough to invalidate the finding that Nixon won in the opinion of a majority of radio listeners. The standard deviation is 3.7% (assuming an expected 50-50 result). So, 2 standard deviations is only 7.4%, not enough to make the difference beteen 67% and less than 50%.

    The hypothetical rural bias is harder to evaluate, because it's based on guess piled upon guess. We don't know if there was a rural bias nor how big the rural bias might have been.

    Neither do we know what percentage of rural listeners favored Nixon over Kennedy. Nor do we know how much impact favoring a particular candidate had on one's evalution of the debate. It's not automatic that someone favoring a particular candidate will be disposed to believe that his candidate won. E.g., I was a strong Kennedy supporter (and Nixon-hater), but I thought Nixon clearly won that debate.

    1. Nice try, David, but unfortunately, the firm that did the survey apparently did not compile, or has long lost, the data about the composition of the 282 "radio listeners" out of 2,138 total respondents.

      That means there was no way to know whether those 282 respondents closely resembled the voting population in general, and if they don't, the "survey" is useless.

      I would think that you, of all people, would understand that clearly after a solid week of GOP whining that every poll that shows Obama ahead by growing margins is "skewed" because they grossly under-represent Republicans.

    2. Interesting point, Anon. You may be right, although ISTM the Media Myth article isn't totally clear on just which group the 2 to 1 ratio applied to.

      This source (found via google) says that "radio audience", by a ratio of 48.7% to 21% felt Nixon had won the debate. Unfortunately this article is unclear as to whether "radio audience" meant all those in the survey or only those who were actually listening on the radio.

      I actually met Albert Sindlinger. He spoke at a meeting of the local chapter of the American Statisical Assn. in Philadelphia in 1964. He struck me as a pretty sharp individual, so I tend to think he would have done his study properly.

      BRW I didn't mean my comment to have political overtones. It was purely a technical observation. I have no opinion on the validity of the surveys. James Taranto has a lucid discussion of why a whole bunch of surveys might be distorted without any deliberate conspiracy. (Scroll down to The Conspiracy Trope.)

      systemic bias need not, and in these cases probably is not, the product of a conspiracy. Narrow-mindedness and groupthink are sufficient to explain media bias (including the bias Carr, Martin and Burns display in caricaturing critics as conspiracy theorists), and poll bias can come from methodological problems or mistaken assumptions about how to interpret the data.

    3. He MAY have done the study properly. We don't know that without the data to back it up. But again, out of 2,130 people surveyed, 282 said they heard the debate on radio. Of those 282, only 178 offered an opinion. And the opinion of those 178 is not only given equal weight to the 1,848 people who saw it on TV and offered their opinion, it is actually used to NEGATE that opinion -- that JFK didn't really win the war of words, only the war of good looks.

      What this truly is is an insult to the American voter to believe that Nixon's sweat and 5 o'clock shadow was the basis of their vote, while ignoring all the issues boiling in 1960 -- the space race, the "missile gap," tax policy, the Civil Rights movement, on and on and on.

      It's even more insulting that Somerby clinging to the notion for 13 years that the only factor in the 2000 election was the mean things that Kit Seelye, Ceci Connelly and Maureen Dowd were writing, as well as the press corps booing and hissing him during the debate with Bradley -- 11 months before the election.

    4. Clarification: "It is even more insulting THAN Somberby ..."

      I'll give Somerby some slack for years of listening to "this small little thing decided the close election" and for falling into the trap that if he can first identify that "small little thing" then he, too, will become one of the "smart" pundits.

    5. BTW Anon, we now know that the supposed missile gap was bogus. The Soviets weren't actually ahead of us.

      It does seem surprising that a Dem ran as the more hawkish candidate.

    6. It is surprising only to a person who believes the myth that Democrats are always "soft on defense."

      For instance, we also know now and we should have known then that the huge military build-up that Reagan gets credit for was begun by Carter, who also took the extraordinary step of boycotting the Moscow Olympics in response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, thus pretty much ending the Nixonian policy of "detente" with the Soviets.

      And we know that "super-tough" Reagan once sent the Ayatollah a birthday cake while he was selling him arms and diverting the funds to the Contras.

      I can only imagine the alacrity of the impeachment hearings had Carter done that.

  3. Since the dawn of language, humankind has used stories to convey messages to future generations. It is much wiser to examine the truth of the message itself rather than the truth of the story.

    In this case, the American media repeats the Legends of the Debates to convey the message that debates are important, so tune in. In fact, according to the legend, they can be game-changers, turning losers into winners, through either the single "clever line" (Reagan) or the single "gaffe" (Ford).

    The reality of the message conveyed could be much different, and that is the subject worth delving into. For example, is there any evidence that the joint press interviews we call "debates" really sway voters one way or the other?

    Just for the sake of argument, we could accept the premise that Nixon won the first debate on radio and lost it on TV, while still asking the questions, "So what?" and "Then why didn't his (according to the legend) stronger performances in the subsequent debates make any difference if each debate is so important?"

  4. And can someone tell me why "There you go again" is a thing? Really, they talk about this like it's Winston Churchill, Aristotle and Muhammad Ali's rope-a-dope in one swoop.

    1. Good question. As I recall, it just worked. Maybe it was Reagan's delivery -- said lightly, but not too lightly, as if Reagan were a kind older brother. Or, maybe it was like a sitcom catchphrase -- a bit of humor so simple that anyone could get the joke.

    2. Because it feeds into the myth that close elections are decided by ONE small thing, and the pundit that discovers that ONE thing wins some sort of prize.

      In truth, elections, close and otherwise, turn on several things.

      For example, suppose 2,000 of those Floridians who voted for Nader had decided instead to vote for Gore. We would have been hearing for years how that late-breaking story of Bush's old DUI in Maine had suddenly turned the election, whether or not it had anything to do with those 2,000 Floridians voting as they did.

      And David, if I were a person who voted for Reagan in 1980, I would be deeply insulted by the insinuation that I did so for such a shallow reason as I thought he was a "kinder older brother."

      I cast my vote for far more serious reasons, and I will grant the dignity to Reagan supporters that they did as well.

    3. Anon, sorry I wasn't clear. My intended point was that by the use of this phrase, Reagan could get away with calling President Carter a liar. And, Reagan convinced the public that Carter was lying.

      I wish Romney could find some modern-day equivalent. I think if Romney accused President Obama of lying, Romney would be blasted for it, even if Romney were correct.

    4. Yeah, Reagan indirectly called Carter a liar, and then he proceeded to lie his ass off. But the press was so impressed that he delivered his line, "there you go again" so perfectly they weren't really interested in the policy point that Carter was making.

    5. Oh, David? That would all be true, except that it's not.

      The context of the "There you go again" remark was that Carter was hammering Reagan on his well-recorded (quite literally, he issued an LP to the AMA) opposition to Medicare.

      Carter was telling the truth about that. Reagan used "there you go again" in an attempt to dismiss it as irrelevant to 1980, not to call Carter a liar.

    6. No, he didn't imply that it was irrelevant. He actually lied and claimed he was only opposed to Medicare because he preferred an alternate federal program:

      "....there was another piece of legislation meeting the same problem before the Congress. I happened to favor the other piece of legislation and thought that it would be better for the senior citizens and provide better care than the one that was finally passed."

      This was a complete fabrication.

  5. Well, there you go again, David.

    Since you can't grasp the most basic truth about the 1980 election, allow me to try one more time:

    One single clever line in that debate DID NOT decide that election. I repeat, it "DID NOT" decide that election.

    Please give people more credit for intelligence, regardless of how they voted.