Jay Paterno is still mad and he’s not going to take it anymore. The former Penn State University Quarterbacks Coach and son of the late Coach Joe Paterno is suing PSU to get what he thinks is owed him by those who have done him wrong.
In his $1 million lawsuit against the university which he filed last month with another former PSU coach, Jay Paterno is alleging, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that he was “improperly terminated” when [he was] retained as an [assistant coach] by [former] Penn State coach Bill O’Brien in January 2012″ and that the university has [engaged] in civil conspiracy against [him]” which has made him “unemployable for other football coaching positions.”
In other words, Jay Paterno has been unable to get a coaching job since PSU cleaned its football house in early 2012. As you might recall, Jay Paterno’s dad, Joe Paterno and other head administrators were fired by the university in light of the 2011 child abuse scandal in which Former PSU Defensive Coordinator Jerry Sandusky was accused and eventually sentenced to 30-60 years for 45 counts of child sexual abuse against ten boys.
Once the Sandusky case rocked the university and his dad’s less-than-stellar handling of one reported sexual assault by Sandusky came to light, Jay Paterno should’ve known his coaching days at PSU were numbered, especially once his dad died from the stress of it all or of a guilty conscience.
Yet he seemed shocked by the termination. I guess having been employed by your father for seventeen years, twelve of them in a high profile position, means never having to experience the ‘new coach = possible job termination’ phenomenon. Therefore when it happened to Jay Paterno courtesy of O’Brien it was probably a major kick-in-the-gut moment for him though he did receive a severance payment given to ‘Paterno Assistants’ who weren’t retained by O’Brien.
It would be hard to argue that the Sandusky scandal hasn’t been an impediment to Jay Paterno’s post-PSU coaching career. What university would want a coach on their team who might have turned a blind eye and/or deaf ear to Sandusky’s sexual assault of young boys (though it has never been alleged or proven that Jay Paterno had knowledge of the incidents)? Of course Jay Paterno’s last name has probably proved more of a hindrance than a help–which isn’t normally how it has worked for him. Hiring him might bring unwanted attention to a school regarding a topic or coach that they don’t wish to discuss.
However, there is another question that hasn’t been fully vetted regarding Jay Paterno’s lack of coaching offers. Is it solely because of his ‘connection’ to the Penn State/Sandusky scandal that he hasn’t been hired or could it also involve something else, such as his own coaching history?
Underwhelming Coaching Achievements
Most of Jay Paterno’s college football experience has been playing and working for his dad. He was a member of the Nittany Lions football team for four years (1986-1990) though he was never a starter. In his final year he was a reserve quarterback for the team.
After he graduated from PSU he was a graduate assistant for the University of Virginia football team for a couple of years (1990-1992). Next up, he was the Quarterbacks and Tight Ends coach at the University of Connecticut for one year (1993-1994). His final stop before returning to PSU was a one-year term as the Quarterbacks Coach at James Madison University (1994-1995). From 1995-1999 he was PSU’s Tight Ends Coach and Recruiting Coordinator then became their Quarterbacks Coach in 1995 until he was terminated in 2012.
His football coaching experience amounts to 19 years with 17 of them at Penn State working under his dad. Not exactly a prolific coaching road he’s traveled. Nevertheless, Penn State’s bio of Jay Paterno lauds his quarterback coaching work at the university.
[Jay Paterno] has been instrumental in the development of Rob Bolden and Matt McGloin, both of whom have delivered school record-setting performances. Paterno was influential in the development of two-time first-team All-Big Ten signal-caller Daryll Clark. Co-winner of the 2009 Big Ten Silver Football (MVP), Clark was 22-4 as a starter, breaking Penn State records for season (24) and career (43) touchdown passes, season passing yardage (3,003) and season total offense (3,214), among others. Under Paterno’s guidance, Clark gave Penn State a 2,000-yard passer for the fifth straight year. Paterno was instrumental in the development of record-setting quarterbacks Anthony Morelli and Michael Robinson, the 2005 Big Ten MVP. Robinson broke Kerry Collins’ Penn State season total offense mark en route to finishing fifth in voting for the Heisman Trophy. Paterno also coached Zack Mills, who owned or shared 18 school passing and total offense records, including the game passing (399 yards) and total offense (418 yards) marks.
Sounds like he’s done some solid work molding successful quarterbacks, but I doubt any of the above QB names beyond Collins (whom he only worked with for one season) rings much of a bell to most NFL fans and with good reason. Yes, some of his quarterbacks broke a few Big 10 Records and two of them finished in the Top 10 of the Heisman Trophy Race during their PSU years (Kerry Collins and Michael Robinson). But if you’re a well-known football program what you hang your hat on is how many of your players make it to the NFL.
Under Jay Paterno’s coaching tutelage only three of his QBs have made it to the NFL, with one of them playing as a wide receiver. Also PSU quarterbacks during his tenure didn’t exactly do a lot of passing during their games, with only Zack Mills and Matt McGloin cracking the 150 yards per game average. Yes, PSU has traditionally been known for its running game and producing linebackers. However that doesn’t mean PSU wasn’t interested in putting up large QB numbers, especially since it was in the Big Ten. For the eleven quarterbacks whom he coached at PSU during his 12-year period they only averaged 144.4 passing yards per game. You stack up that data against other well-known or Big Ten quarterbacks during that time period (Kyle Orton, Tom Brady, Chad Henne, Drew Brees) Penn State’s signal callers suffer woefully in comparison, let alone their QB Coach.
Neither Penn State or Jay Paterno attracted big-time quarterbacks and they definitely didn’t produce them. Is it any wonder that college football programs haven’t been clamoring for his quarterback coaching services?
Grasping At Career Straws
Due to a lack of college coaching offers Jay Paterno had to find another career path. Maybe he could’ve stepped back a level and done some high school coaching or become an athletic administrator at a smaller school, sensible decisions to most people, unless you’re a Paterno.
Instead, he decided to run for public office. In a somewhat ‘go big or go home’ political move he announced in February 2014 that he was running in the Democratic Race for Lieutenant Governor of Pennsylvania. As to be expected, his campaign was practically over before it started. The validity of the 1,000 signatures his campaign collected to have his name officially put on the ballot became a legal sticking point. In addition, he had zero political experience, was running against six other politically-seasoned candidates and the issue of him being accused of trading off his family name for votes was a salient one. Inevitably, on March 28, 2014 he dropped out of the race.
Luckily for him he had another career back-up plan. While he was running for office he had been working on his first book Paterno Legacy: Enduring Lessons from the Life and Death of My Father, which was released this summer. The books’s purpose in so many words is to remind others that they shouldn’t allow the Sandusky issue to define Joe Paterno’s life and football legacy. Jay Paterno has always defended his dad’s actions surrounding the Sandusky child sexual assault scandal, stating that “in no way shape or form would Joe Paterno have put anybody in harm’s way” though the Freeh Report which investigated PSU’s actions regarding the Sandusky matter stated otherwise. Nevertheless, the book will probably do well among PSU Alumni who still strongly believe that PSU should honor Joe Paterno for his service to the university, if no one else.
Jay Paterno must think being a writer/author will be a good career move. Besides his bi-monthly column for StateCollege.com, his official website (formerly his campaign website) mentions that he is working on a second book tentatively titled ‘School Colors’ that will “take readers inside a year of big-time college football.” Guess he’ll be speaking from personal experience.
Jay Paterno may believe that Penn State has sabotaged his coaching career because the university is trying to run as fast as it can from all those who were employed by Joe Paterno and/or connected to Jerry Sandusky. Given the fact that Jay Paterno has never been accused of having knowledge of Sandusky’s actions it would seem that maybe the scandal hasn’t tarnished him as much as he alleges.
What seems to really be at play in Jay Paterno’s post-PSU work history is good, old-fashioned nepotism. He worked twelve years as the quarterbacks coach for his dad churning out mediocre talent at best with a couple of bright spots. Given his coaching record with his quarterbacks he wouldn’t have lasted nearly as long if he was at another college football program. The only reason why he did is because of his last name. He knows it and so does the college football coaching community. His short-term dive into politics (which was probably his first truly obvious attempt to trade on his family’s name) was, to be blunt, a vanity-filled, waste-of-time. In this instance, nepotism and politics weren’t on friendly terms. As for his writing career, maybe he will become a successful author, but given his track record it seems unlikely.
In the end Jay Paterno might be good at only one thing – being the son of Joe Paterno. Can’t blame Penn State, Sandusky or O’Brien for that – only himself.
Since the dawn of the Republic (well maybe not that far back) letter grades have been the standard in most public and private schools in the United States. Generations of students grew up with the A-E (or A-D and an F) grading system to help them determine how well they were doing in school. It was a simple, comprehensible but exacting way for parents, teachers and school administrators to track a student’s academic progress (or lack thereof); to determine their strengths and areas in need of improvement.
Sadly, school districts across the nation have dumped its standard A-E grading system for its elementary and/or middle schools like a first wife whose husband traded her in for a newer model due to a midlife crisis. In the case for Maryland’s Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) in 2013 its elementary school grading system was replaced with the convoluted ES-P-I-N-M-NEP version (see chart).
The new grading system is part of the implementation of Montgomery County’s Curriculum 2.0 – based on the Common Core education standards. (Note: MCPS began rolling out the new curriculum on a grade-by-grade basis in 2009-2010 with some kindergarten classrooms at participating Curriculum 2.0 pilot schools). At the start of the 2014-2015 school year grades, K-6 will use Curriculum 2.0 and grades 7-12 will continue with its previous MCPS standard curriculum (aka ‘Curriculum 1.0′ ). Therefore by Fall 2020 Curriculum 2.0 will be used by grades K-12 in Montgomery County.
MCPS’ adoption of its version of the Common Core curriculum hasn’t phased most Montgomery County parents. It’s the new K-5 grading system – designed by MCPS – to work with the new curriculum to better measure elementary students’ knowledge and academic aptitude that has parents flummoxed.
Luckily for us and other 5th grade students and their families at our former elementary school we only had to deal with this hair-brained grading system for one year (2013-2014) since MCPS will still use the A-E grading system for its 6-12th grade students. But there are many current elementary school parents and families with incoming kindergarten students who will be tortured for several years trying to figure out MCPS’ elementary school grading system, that is, if they ever do.
New Curriculum = New Grades = Confusion
In June 2013 our son’s elementary school administration gave the rising 5th grade parents an overview of the Curriculum 2.0 and the new grading system. The parents didn’t have questions about the grading system, but some were up in arms over the elimination of ‘gifted/accelerated’ classrooms (not surprising since helicopter parents have been jockeying for better placement for their kids since they were fetuses).
My husband and I weren’t pleased with the new curriculum. We definitely weren’t thrilled with the new grading system, but decided to abstain from an opinion until we had an opportunity to see both in practice.
When my son started his 5th grade year in Fall 2013 I immediately noticed the lack of grades on returned assignments. As to be expected we weren’t seeing the A-E grades, but we also weren’t consistently seeing the new grades (ES-P-I-N) either. Grades on assignments were numerical in nature, for example “8/10” or “15/20” based on the number of questions the student was asked (i.e. ’10’) and problems that the student solved correctly (i.e. ‘8’). Since the fifth grade teachers were learning and incorporating the new grading system and Curriculum 2.0 simultaneously I wasn’t surprised by the primary usage of numerical grades. However, when I spoke with parents with children in other grades at our elementary school and others schools in Montgomery County, this same numerical grading system was being used in their child(ren)’s classrooms as well.
Our son knew what the the new grades meant (i.e. ES = exceptional, P = proficient, etc.), but we were pretty sure that he didn’t truly understand how MCPS interpreted the grades. As a result, my husband and I got into the habit of translating his numerical grades into the standard grading system and the new grading system so that our son would have a more solid understanding of his academic progress.
For many parents the new grading system primarily existed on their child(ren)’s report cards for them to attempt to decipher, with one Montgomery County parent Chuck Thomas wondering if ‘ES’ stood for “elusive secret.” Was this what MCPS had in mind for its state-of-the-art-allegedly-more-honest-and-accurate new grading system?
Old Grades vs. New Grades
So, what was wrong with the A-E grades? According to Ebony Langford-Brown, MCPS’ Director of Elementary Instruction and Achievement it’s because when students used to get an ‘A’ grade it was for “[a recollection] of facts” but that the new grading system now shows that “proficiency means that [a student] can use the facts in some way and use them differently — synthesizing, analyzing and making value judgments.”
Yet, If MCPS is so gung-ho about the new grading system and curriculum why haven’t they implemented both for all MCPS students? Why the grade-by-grade roll-out? MCPS knew that implementing a new curriculum and grading system throughout grades K-12 would cause a serious parental riot, especially among high school parents. Could you imagine high school kids trying to explain an ES-P-I-N transcript to potential college recruiters? Middle school parents wouldn’t be too pleased with the change either given their children would be entering the pivotal high school grade years.
As a result, MCPS decided it would be easier to take a hit to the face than a kick in the balls (metaphorically speaking) which is why they decided to use elementary school students and their parents as guinea pigs for its new curriculum and grading system. Maybe they thought elementary school parents would be more receptive (nee malleable) to its new curriculum and grading system. If things worked out then MCPS would have data to support its curriculum and grade system changes. If it doesn’t do well then they’ve only caused academic and administrative problems for elementary schools and their students respectively. No big deal.
Who really is profiting from the new grading system?
If you answered ‘students’ then you’re either a strong Common Core Curriculum supporter, an idealistic person or a resident of fantasyland. The people (ahem ‘company’) that are truly benefiting from the new grading system is the Pearson Company – Montgomery County Public School System’s official testing company. Education Week describes Pearson as an “education provider with worldwide reach” who “[develops] test-items, test delivery, reporting of results, and analysis of student performance for a group of states that are part of the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, or PARCC, one of two main consortia designing tests linked to the common-core standards.”
If MCPS intends to spread Curriculum 2.0 throughout all grades then it will need a proper testing procedure to accurately capture a student’s progress with its new curriculum, which teachers will record via the ES-P-I-N and A-E grading system. Since Maryland is now a PARCC state (one of 14 and the District of Columbia) and Pearson is a PARCC test provider who else but Pearson are Montgomery County and Maryland State Department’s of Education going to use for their testing needs? Though Eric Lang, MCPS Associate Superintendent for Curriculum and Instructional Programming, would probably beg to differ, the decision was a fait accompli. He said that MCPS selected Pearson for the following reasons:
[it] would be mutually beneficial to collaborate on the development of this unique curriculum. The partnership, and the resulting resources, provided MCPS with the opportunity to expand [its] staff, resulting in a more robust curriculum, including more assessments and online professional development. (EdTechDigest.com, Jan. 31, 2013)
Maybe Pearson was interested in working with MCPS, but I’m sure the fact that grades K-5 (Curriculum 2.0 users) and 6-12 (non 2.0 users) MCPS students will be tested using PARCC played a significant financial part in Pearson’s desire to saddle-up with MCPS, the 17th largest school system in the United States with over 150,000 students.
It will be after 2020 when MCPS will be able to assess whether it’s new curriculum has been a good thing for Montgomery County. Furthermore, the elementary school’s new grading system which generally has not been well-received will be lucky to last five years.
Whether you’re a proponent or opponent of the Curriculum 2.0 and/or the ES-P-I-N grading system it’s hard to believe that MCPS truly stands behind either given the piecemeal way both have been installed. Nevertheless it appears MCPS’ Curriculum 2.0 is here to stay and elementary school students, parents, teachers and administrators will continue to be MCPS’ test subjects for the immediate future.
On this issue, the Montgomery County Public School System deserves an ‘N’ for execution (that’s a ‘D’ to everyone else).
Note: 1) The ‘If letter grades were good enough for Jesus’ title is a paraphrase of the quote “If English was good enough for Jesus Christ, it ought to be good enough for the children of Texas” is often credited to James Ferguson (governor of Texas) allegedly spoken in 1917 in reference to the issue of bilingualism in Texas schools. 2) I want to thank Donald Earl Collins for providing me with feedback and clarity concerning MCPS’ educational policies.
Update: On February 3, 2015 Montgomery County Public Schools Superintendent Joshua Starr announced his resignation. His resignation was effective February 16, 2015.
Updated May 25, 2018
On the Hollywood food chain it seems that Asian actors are “lint” or maybe “less than lint” – to borrow a line from the 1998 movie Dave.
Like Asian actors, Black actors and actresses always lament, with good reason, the lack of roles that are offered to him. They complain about being pigeon-holed into the usual stereotypical roles such as street thugs, sexy divas, loudmouths, wife abusers and the religious matriarch. Sometimes they’re offered good roles because the casting people, fortunately, came down with a case of color-blindness
But compared to what is offered to Asian actors (Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Indian, etc.) Black actors have a plethora of acting roles. Asian actresses are mainly cast in subservient roles such as the quiet, dutiful wife or sexually-submissive girlfriend or prostitute. Sandra Oh’s strong and complex character “Dr. Yang” from the television series Grey’s Anatomy being one of the few exceptions to this rule.
Asian actors may, arguably, have more work opportunities than compared to their female counterparts, but the acting stereotypes are still there. Asian males are chosen to play roles that require them to be martial art experts, lords of wisdom, honor-bound samurais, extremely-strict fathers or stressed-out, academic over-achievers with nerd-like qualities. Mostly they’re cast as what I refer to as the “Five O’s”: obstinate fathers, omnipotent fighters, overly dutiful sons, obsequious man-servants or old wise men.
But for a brief moment in 1993 there was an Asian actor, Jason Scott Lee, who could have become a major star. Within a two-month period of that year he was in two films – a romantic drama as a WWII pilot the other as the iconic actor and martial arts expert Bruce Lee (no relation). The latter film did cast him as an Asian playing a famous Asian, but he was so much more than that as an actor. He should’ve been so much more.
Unfortunately, Hollywood just wasn’t ready. Hell, it still isn’t ready, though Asian actors keep trying. But sometimes I’m sure they feel like Sisyphus with that damn rock – constantly pushing at it, only for it to roll down and over them time and again.
In the Not So Distant Beginning
Most of us have seen one or more racist Asian stereotypes in movies and films during our lifetime. I can’t recall the first one that I saw, but there are some I haven’t forgotten. Mickey Rooney’s visually and stereotypically buffoonish and obviously myopic Chinese servant in Breakfast At Tiffany’s. Gedde Watanabe cringe-worthy role in Sixteen Candles as the Chinese exchange student whose English and social skills are child-like and idiotic.
Of course there was also David Carradine in the television series Kung Fu as “Kwai Chang Caine” an Amerasian shaolin monk skilled in Buddhism and martial arts spreading his mysticism throughout the American West. “Kwai” was originally written to be Chinese and was to star Bruce Lee who had cut his teeth in television as martial arts crime fighter “Kato” in the Green Hornet. Not surprisingly, Lee ended up going overseas in order to become a ‘star’ in Hollywood, albeit a posthumous one.
It has still been a very tough road for Asian actors since Bruce Lee. Over the past twenty to thirty years a select few East Asian (Chinese, Japanese, Korean, etc.) actors born in or outside the U.S. have entered the entertainment mainstream via television and/or feature films with various levels of visibility and success. Actors such as Chow Yun Fat (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), Jackie Chan (Rush Hour films), Jet Li (Romeo Must Die), Daniel Dae Kim (Lost, Hawaii Five-O), Russell Wong (Joy Luck Club), Ken Watanabe (The Last Samurai) and John Cho (Harold & Kumar films)
However, most owe their career livelihood to the martial arts and/or action-film genre. Asian male actors who can’t, won’t or don’t do martial arts exclusively – who primarily just ‘act’ seem to be few and far in between.
Back in the late 1980s Jason Scott Lee (JSL), an American actor of Chinese-Hawaiian descent was probably aware of the Hollywood odds. He started with small roles in television series such as Matlock and Wolf. He lucked out with a few television movies and small-to-major films such as The Lookalike, Born in East L.A. and Back To The Future II.
According to Internet Movie Database, JSL had acting gigs in only nine television and movies between 1987 and 1993, with 1993 being his breakout year. However, things were about to change, at least they should have changed, according to every happy-ever-after story in Hollywood.
A Double Film Slam Dunk
In April 1993 a small film called Map of the Human Heart was released which was followed in May by Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story. Both films happened to star JSL in lead roles.
Map of the Human Heart was a romantic drama that takes place in the 1930s in which JSL played Avik, a Canadian Innuit who joins the Royal Canadian Air Force as a bomber pilot. The film revolves around his childhood then adult love for a French-Indian girl played by Anne Parillaud and the impact of his WWII actions – especially the firebombing of Dresden, Germany – had on his emotional well-being after the war. In the film you get to see JSL in various stages of his life, as a cocky pilot, man in love, shell-shocked war veteran and a despondent alcoholic. One of the stand-out scenes in the film is of Jason Scott Lee and Parillaud naked, making love on top of a barrage balloon. Seeing an Asian male actor in such an obviously romantic film scene is a rare occurrence.
Chicago Sun-Times critic Roger Ebert said that JSL ” brings a joy and freshness to the early scenes, and makes a good contrast to the older Avik, who has lost his way.” Ebert concluded that ‘Map of the Human Heart’ was “one of the year’s (1993) best films” and gave it four stars. The film only made little over $2 million, but it was critically-acclaimed and JSL received excellent reviews.
A month later JSL was on the screen again in Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story. The film was based on the book Bruce Lee: The Man I Only Knew by his widow, Linda Lee Caldwell. The semi-biographical film chronicled Bruce Lee’s childhood and young adult years in Hong Kong (though he was born in the U.S.); his move to San Francisco, going to college, meeting his wife and having a family, creating the martial art Jeet Kuen Do and his television and film work up until his death after filming Enter the Dragon, a marital arts classic. Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story had an epic Hollywood biographical tone that played a bit loose with the facts (i.e. he hurt his back lifting weights, not in a battle defending his martial arts creation). However, it also delved into the racial hardships Lee faced as an Asian-American trying to become an American success story.
JSL struck the right tone for the movie which showed his physical prowess (he learned martial arts for the film), comedic timing, dramatic skills all while handling a love story. The film did well, pulling in $35 million at the box-office – a much better haul than Map of the Human Heart.
Roger Ebert said JSL was a “gifted young actor” who like Bruce Lee “use film to give them power over time and space.” Desson Howe of the Washington Post said it’s “[JSL’s] acting that makes “Dragon” so watchable – that “[w]ith a personality like firecrackers, he charms and crackles his way through this movie.”
One can’t help but think that parts of Jason Scott Lee’s portrayal of Bruce Lee in Dragon reflected his own experiences dealing with racism. Yes, the movie wasn’t completely accurate in its telling of Lee’s story, but JSL made you believe you were watching Bruce Lee. Jason Scott Lee is powerful and electric in the scene (video below) in which, as Bruce Lee, he rages against Hollywood’s racist treatment of him and Asian actors. You can’t help but wonder if some of JSL’s experience with Hollywood helped him bring such anger, passion and hurt to the climatic scene.
Pete Rainer of the Los Angeles Times summed up what most movie critics and film goers thought of JSL at that time”:
“What’s exciting about “Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story” is that, in Jason Scott Lee, the movie has created a new star out of an old star. The film is a tribute to Bruce Lee but it’s also a tribute to the transforming powers of performance. Lee does justice to Bruce Lee while, at the same time, creating a character out of his own fierce resources. He is, quite literally, smashing.”
After I saw both of these films I kept my eye on Jason Scott Lee, hoping against hope that he would blow-up, big-time on the silver screen. I remembered how Daniel Day-Lewis in 1985-1986 had an actor’s year similar to JSL. Daniel Day-Lewis played played a working-class, gay man in an interracial relationship in My Beautiful Laundrette and then followed that up with a role as a proper upper -class gentleman in Room With A View. Hollywood definitely took notice of Day-Lewis’ diverse acting skills. Maybe the same could happen to Jason Scott Lee.
In reality, I knew it wasn’t going to happen. Jason Scott Lee probably knew it too.
Sound and Fury – Then Nothing
After the banner year of 1993 things were pretty quiet work-wise for Jason Scott Lee. Between 1994 and 2013 he was cast in approximately 25 roles, mostly small parts in television shows (The Hunger, Hawaii Five-0), voice-over work (Lilo & Stitich), low budget-films (Tale of the Mummy) and straight-to-video films (Timecop:The Berlin Decision).
He had some screen time in four big-budget films during this period; two of which he was the lead actor – 1994’s Rapa Nui and The Jungle Book. He played an Eastern Island warrior finding love amidst a civil war and a jungle boy raised by wolves, respectively. Not much of a casting stretch for Hollywood. As for the cinematic quality of these films – the less said about them the better.
After Rapa Nui and Jungle Book he didn’t work for three years. Whether this was on purpose or not, it’s hard to determine. Maybe Jason Scott Lee had simply had enough. In between his sporadic television and film work JSL kept busy with local Hawaiian theater, personal documentaries and working on his martial arts skills
Unfortunately what happened to Jason Scott Lee happens to a lot of actors, Asians and non-Asians, so it’s nothing new. But it’s still a shame nonetheless, given his talent.
In December 2010 Jason Scott Lee was interviewed by Guy Aoki, writer for Rafu Shimpo, a Los Angeles Japanese News Daily. Aoki asked JSL if he had been too “selective” in the mid-1990s about the type of roles he wanted. JSL said:
“Back in the ’90s, my effort was to do films with meaningful content, which I believe is still the goal of many artists in Hollywood. For an Asian American actor, it’s that much more difficult. I had a tough time back then accepting the redundant action hero opportunities that were placed before me. It now makes me realize that ‘Dragon’ was somewhat before its time, and trying to find a challenge that would capitalize on that performance was completely non-existent. I’m hoping to find positive challenges in the current situation of movie making.”
I have watched Map of the Human Heart and Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story several times over the years. I still shake my head at Hollywood’s missed opportunity. It almost makes you want to keep your fingers crossed for every ‘person of color’ actor and actress trying to make it in Hollywood because the opportunities are few and the chances for success are even fewer.
Most don’t make it or if they do, they end up catching fire quickly or only for a moment. But then the embers don’t last and the smoke eventually goes away. Just ask Jason Scott Lee.
Notes: 1) You can watch Map of the Human Heart in its entirety here and Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story here. 2) In this 2016 CGTN America video, Jason Scott Lee talks about whitewashing (casting of white actors in Asian roles) in Hollywood. 3) See articles/links below to learn more about racial stereotypes, whitewashing and ethnic assumptions in Hollywood casting (and beyond).
Actors of Color on Racial Stereotypes (Film Courage) – A seven-part video series in which you hear from Black, Latinx, Asian, and Native American men and women discussing their journey, frustrations, surprises and heartaches as they navigate being an actor/actress of color in Hollywood whose default casting is always white.
Black Actors Are Too Often Overlooked. It’s Even Worse for Other Ethnic Minorities (The Guardian) – A British/Asian perspective on the difficulties actors of color in England have in getting work, especially since, according to research by the British Film Institute “[60%] of British films made in the past 10 years [2005-2015] featured no named characters portrayed by black actors. Just 13% starred a black actor in a leading role.”
11 Stereotypes Black Actors Must Play Laid Out in One Scathing Takedown (IndieWire) – “Mamoudou N’Diaye has no need to make an audition reel; the actor has perfected every role he will ever need to play in Hollywood. In a hilarious and scathing parody for Mic, N’Diaye runs through the offensive and reductive stereotypes that too often pigeonhole black talent.”
For Older Actors of Color, The Movement for A More Diverse Hollywood Has Come Too Late (Washington Post) – Jenifer Lewis (Black-ish) discusses being an older actress of color in the era of Hollywood’s trumpeted march towards diversification. The noteworthy comment in the article is when Lewis is asked if actresses like herself “feel reflected” in such diversity efforts. She said “not particularly” because nonwhite actresses of her generation have “no real voice.”
Forget Playing Terrorist No. 3. Middle Eastern Actors Seek Roles Beyond Hollywood Stereotypes (Los Angeles Times) – “Actors, especially those from Africa and Arab states, often contend with Western screenwriters and studios that have reduced a complex world to cursory and at times racist story lines that seldom differentiate between a Shiite or a Sunni Muslim, much less between a Pakistani or a Kuwaiti.”
From Breakfast At Tiffany’s to Hellboy: The Ongoing Problem of Hollywood ‘Whitewashing‘ (Independent) – “Whitewashing is not new. It was a common practice in classical Hollywood, where some of its most egregious examples include John Wayne as Genghis Khan in The Conqueror and Mickey Rooney as Mr Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Audiences know instinctively that whitewashing is bad – hence the criticisms of other whitewashing films and the resulting hashtag #StarringJohnCho that went viral in spring 2016. As a cultural practice, having white people play, replace and stereotype characters of colour obscures and erases their history, agency and power.”
Hollywood Movies Still Stereotype LGBT Characters, Depict ‘Gay Panic Scenes’ (The Wrap) – Article discusses how lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgender characters are mostly missing-in-action in films, and when they do appear it’s for laughs or fear of gay people or being viewed as being gay. “Leaving LGBT people out of the picture — or including them only as a punchline — keeps old prejudices alive and creates an unsafe environment, not only here in America, but around the world,” said GLAAD President Sarah Kate Ellis in an introduction to the annual Studio Responsibility Index.”
Negative Racial Stereotypes and Their Effect on Attitudes Toward African-Americans (Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia) – Concise and digestible research paper that “[identifies] seven historical racial stereotypes of African-Americans and demonstrate that many of these distorted images still exist in society today. Additionally, strategies for intervention and the implications of this exploration into racial stereotypes will be presented.”
‘We’re the geeks, the prostitutes’: Asian American Actors on Hollywood’s Barriers (The Guardian) – “While much of the recent debate around Asian representation in Hollywood has centered on whitewashing – when white actors are cast to tell Asian stories – working actors said a lack of opportunity was only one part of the problem. Asian American actors said they rarely, if ever, got auditions for leading roles, and when they did get parts, they were frequently secondary to the plot or portrayed offensive tropes.”
Why I Won’t Wear War Paint and Feathers In A Movie Again (Time) – Actor Brian Young (Navajo) discusses his experience in Hollywood and the industry’s racist history when portraying Native Americans.
Yellowface is a bad look, Hollywood (Vox) – The video provides a nice overview of Hollywood’s history of casting whites as Asians in its movies. As the video states “Scarlett Johansson’s casting in ‘Ghost in the Shell’ is just one of the latest examples of a white actor playing an Asian character, a practice that goes back to the earliest days of Hollywood. These casting decisions have made Asians invisible at best and, at worst, the butt of a cruel joke.”
Note: I wrote this essay in April 2008 as a response to Christopher Leinberger’s ‘The Next Slum‘ article (Atlantic Monthly, March 2008). I chastised the author a bit for not exactly answering the implied question about the future of McMansions. Given the sad state of the housing market and rampant foreclosures that have occurred during the past three years maybe Leinberger was simply hedging his bets. I will revisit this essay eventually because foreclosures and abandoned homes have had a significant impact on American communities. In the interim . . .
On your way to achieving adulthood, there are those prerequisite steps that come with solidifying your adult status. These steps include having a good-paying job or career, getting married, and having children. One of the most profound investments that any person can make as an adult is to purchase a home. The ideal home for many is one that has at least four bedrooms, multiple bathrooms, a chef-friendly kitchen, expansive dining area, comfortable family room and a backyard big enough to play tackle football. Most importantly, the home should be located in a nice, suburban community.
According to Christopher Leinberger in his Atlantic Monthly (March 2008) article ‘The Next Slum?’ (p. 12-15) the American desire for large homes in suburbia (cum future tenements) possibly began upon viewing the “suburban dream” exhibit at the 1939 New York World’s Fair (Leinberger, p. 13). Visitors were able to see a football field-size exhibit of what “American cities and towns might look like in 1960” (p.13).
Beginning of McMansions
The first suburban reality came into being with the return of American GIs after WWII and was subsequently speeded-along by the increasing relocation of employment to the outside the city, the riots of the 1960s, and retail malls. Also, the change from urban to suburban living had a lot to do with the overall perception that the suburbs had better schools, better homes, and were simply safer. Along with the move to suburbia came the advent of larger homes to complement the larger land space.
The development of these large homes, known as ‘McMansions’ occurred during the 1980s – in the midst of the Reagan Administration, the stock market boom, low energy prices, and the rise of the middle class. McMansions were created to fill the real estate gap between small suburban homes and the usual upscale custom homes that are found in “gated, waterfront, or golf-course communities” (Koloff, p. 23). They are mass-produced homes that range in size between 2200 and 3500 square feet and are located in “homogeneous communities that are often produced by a developer” (Koloff, p. 23). The ‘McMansion’ description comes from the viewpoint that these types of homes lack distinction, durability, and are built similarly and quickly, like the production of food at McDonald’s fast food restaurants.
State of McMansion Land
Unfortunately, as of 2008 many middle-class homeowners can no longer afford to live in their McMansions due to high mortgage loan payments. Homeowners are selling or renting-out their large homes and downsizing to smaller ones. Others have been forced into foreclosure, meaning that their bank or some other financial entity repossessed their homes. The U.S real estate market is in a major decline, in that homes are simply not being purchased as quickly for various reasons (e.g. too costly, tighter loan approval requirements, etc.). Accordingly, homes are remaining unsold, whether it is an old, new or foreclosed home. ‘The Next Slum’ seems to be about whether today’s foreclosed McMansions will “turn into tomorrow’s tenements” (Leinberger, p. 13).
Leinberger first discusses the current state of McMansion suburbia for several homeowners who live in Charlotte, North Carolina, Elk Grove, California and Lee County, Florida. Both areas are experiencing high crime rate and home owner decay as a result of the increase of foreclosed homes in their respective residential area. The foreclosed homes in the two suburbs have been vandalized and have attracted homeless persons, drug users, renters of “dubious character,” and gang activity (Leinberger, p. 13).
Leinberger mentions “one in four houses stand empty” in Lee County, Florida and that “residential burglaries rose by 35 percent and robberies [increased] by 58 percent” (p. 15). Many of the foreclosure problems and subsequent societal ills, such as crime are connected to the sub-prime mortgage (high risk mortgage granted to a borrower with a less-than-perfect credit report) disaster that has affected the housing market. Yet, Leinberger believes that the foreclosure crisis is just another sign in the changing house market – that a “major shift [is] [on] the way [in how] many Americans want to live and work” (p. 14). In that Americans are no longer interested in running towards suburban homes, that the new desire is to return to an urban landscape which includes being close to public transportation, shopping areas, food establishments, cultural entities, etc.
Leinberger then discusses what might happen to these foreclosed McMansion homes – if/when they become slum-like (e.g. poor tenants, limited maintenance, overcrowding, etc.) in nature. He describes how turning these homes into apartments would not be ideal because they lack the solidness of the older homes, that the “structural integrity [that] the [McMansions] have from drywall” is “too flimsy” to withstand over the long term (Leinberger, p. 14).
Many homeowners who live near these foreclosed homes will try to prevent the parceling out of these homes into apartments, but their fight will be to no avail. The community decline will begin, if it hasn’t already, attracting less-than-satisfactory type of residents with “longtime residents” moving elsewhere.
Even with this pessimistic viewpoint, not all homes or suburban neighborhoods will suffer the aforementioned fate if they happen to actually be near a vital area and near a good source of public transportation (i.e., rail lines, subway, etc.). He concludes by stating that the “glum forecast” for suburbia should not outweigh the fact that Americans are desirous of living in a more urban setting because it can lead to other beneficial factors such weight loss and a better environment due to less use of gas and other sources of energy (Leinberger, p. 13). However, Leinberger also oncludes that there will always be those who prefer suburbia to urban living, yet they must be aware that there is a chance that they may be deeply affected by the increasing run towards urban living in the city, or at least a city-like setting.
Suburbanites Returning to the Big City?
Leinberger makes some valid points about the changes in moving from suburban to urban living, especially when he gives cultural and constructional narratives about residential areas in Washington, DC, North Carolina, Florida, and Colorado. Yet, Leinberger’s data doesn’t exactly firmly support his belief that suburbanites are running back to urban settings, leaving their McMansions behind due to high mortgages and/or preference for urbanity – resulting in their homes becoming the next slums.
For example, Leinberger mentions that the “urban feel” of the “faux-urban centers,” “walkable urban places” and “lifestyle centers” are preferred by many new homeowners and those wishing to relocate from the suburbs back to the city (Leinberger, p. 15). However, he also mentions that only “5-10% of the [metropolitan] housing stock” is actually located in these ideal urban settings (p. 15). Furthermore, he states that as of 2000 more than 10 million new single-family homes have been built in suburban areas (p. 15). So – even if the University of British Columbia’s study (as cited by Leinberger) infers that “roughly” one in three homeowners would like to live in an urban setting – this point is weakened by his inclusion of the fact that most metropolitan areas simply don’t have the space for these urban city wannabes (p. 15).
As for the survey’s substance, did it factor in suburban residents continued sensitivity to the negative connotations about suburbia, which involves privilege, status and race? It is more than possible that when suburbanites are questioned about living preferences, they might tend to answer ‘yes’ to preferring to live in an urban rather than suburban area because it is considered the right, hip, and politically correct thing to say. Add to that the continuing increase in the building of suburban homes means that there is still a high interest in living in homes with McMansion-like qualities.
Also, the preference for urban leaving begs the question ‘What does Leinberger or those surveyed mean by “urban”?’ Urban centers leaves one wondering how ‘urban’ are the suburbanites residential desires. These settings are normally situated in “walkable developments that create an urban feel” in places that were undeveloped (Leinberger, p. 15). They also feature “narrow streets and small storefronts” that are “mixed in with housing and office space” (p. 15). To most people, urban areas (aka cities) don’t necessarily fit the description of the urban settings that are preferred by suburbanites looking for an urban feel.
Normally urban areas are viewed as cities or urbanized areas such as New York/New Jersey/Connecticut and the Greater Washington DC area, which includes parts of Maryland and Virginia both with population in the millions. Leinberger mentions the Reston Town Center “located between Virginia’s Dulles International Airport and Washington, DC” as a popular lifestyle urban center (Reston, p. 1). Reston doesn’t exactly fit the definition of an urban city given that its population is less than thirty thousand and is located twenty miles outside DC.
Leinberger’s piece inadvertently (or maybe advertently) implies that these urban centers are synonymous with urban cities, which is far from the case since many urban cities do not mention ‘small storefronts’ as an appeal factor. Maybe there is a reason that the terms ‘center,’ and faux’ are attached to the word ‘urban’ when it comes to suburbanites’ city desires, in that they do not truly want to live in an urban city, but a semblance of one.
Another overstated issue in Leinberger’s piece is the so-called increase of undesirable elements moving into these large, foreclosed McMansion homes and communities. This thought seems to be based on the premise that when suburbanites return to the city, property values go up which forces low-income persons to the outskirts of the city.
Many large, foreclosed suburban homes are located in communities with limited public service access. Most low-income people tend to congregate in areas that have regular public transportation and relatively-easy access to public, community, and social services that help them function from day-to-day; not in areas such as Franklin Reserve in Elk Grove, California, which was mentioned by Leinberger as experiencing a crime problem due to McMansion foreclosures. Interestingly, Leinberger does not include other info about Elk Grove, such as that it is fifteen miles outside Sacramento and that its 18-route public transportation system has only been operational since 2005 – not exactly an ideal residential area for many low-income persons (City of Elk Grove, p. 1).
Some of these foreclosed homes will attract a bad element, but the location and accessibility of public transportation also plays a key in whether these homes will remain unoccupied or will become tenements.
McMansionville the Next Slums?
‘The Next Slum?’ literally begs for an answer to the question ‘Are McMansions or McMansion communities really going to become the next slums?’ Leinberger realizes that he must answer this question quickly, given its provocative title; hence the homeowner narratives about the changing safety factor in their community and the devaluing of their home.
However, instead of immediately having tons of data from various think tanks, newspapers, and real estate prognosticators reiterating his point, Leinberger segues into the history of suburbia, the construction housing market, consumer housing needs/desires, homeowner demographic changes, and home location preferences before working his way back to his titular question. The true nature of the article is not about whether foreclosed McMansions will become the next slums. It is about the changing housing market and its contradictions – housing preferences versus housing realities.
Leinberger plays on homeownership fears about living in a potential slum area in order to discuss how suburban homeowners are downsizing to save money, moving to urban settings, developers’ attempt to address this issue while financially capitalizing on these suburban desires and how some McMansion communities have attempted to combat the foreclosure problem. The foreclosure/slum home aspects of ‘The Next Slum?’ seems to be a somewhat minor player since the article spends most of its time on the development of new urban lifestyle living. Maybe the article should be re-titled ‘Is the Housing Market Changing for Suburbia?’ but that wouldn’t be as sexy or provocative. As for the answer to the question about whether McMansions will become the next slum – Leinberger seems to have answered ‘yes,’ ‘no,’ ‘maybe,’ or ‘not yet’ – not exactly the answer the reader was looking for.
—City of Elk Grove, California website. Retrieved March 7, 2008 from
—Koloff, Abbott (2004). Not every higher-end buyer wants a mcmansion. Daily Record. 23
—Leinberger, C. (2007). The next slum. The Atlantic Monthly. 12-15
—Reston Virginia Data Profile. Retrieved March 10, 2008 from <http://www.city-
Re-posted November 17, 2017
Vietnam Memorial. Arlington Cemetery. Lincoln Memorial. The Washington Monument. Jefferson Memorial. When standing in front these memorials, visitors experience a range of emotions. Awe. Hurt. Sadness. Respect.
The United States National Parks Services (NPS) the government bureau responsible for the maintenance of these memorials, wants visitors to notice and feel the beauty of these memorials – not any aesthetic bruises that would detract from the experience.
However, not every Washington, D.C. memorial is viewed with excitement and reverence by its visitors.
The Ulysses S. Grant Memorial is classified as a presidential memorial, like the Lincoln, Jefferson and FDR, but in terms of recognition it is the poor stepchild of local memorials.
Visitors congregate in front of the memorial on a daily basis, but have no knowledge of Grant or his history. Dennis Montagna, Director of National Park Services’ Monument Research and Preservation Program said that it is a “very anonymous memorial” whose site is mainly used as a place for high school classes to get their picture taken because the U.S. Capitol building is right behind it. Kirk Savage, author of Monument Wars: Washington D.C., the National Mall, and the Transformation of the Memorial Landscape said that “it’s amazing how little is known” about the memorial or the man.
The Grant Memorial is located at between Pennsylvania and Maryland Ave, near the west side of the U.S. Capitol Building. It was dedicated in 1921 in honor of Ulysses S. Grant the 18th president of the United States. It is one of twenty-seven presidential memorials in the United States. It is also the first memorial to be constructed on the National Mall.
Unlike other presidential memorials such as the Lincoln or the Jefferson, Grant’s statue was not in honor of his presidential legacy. Unfortunately, President Grant’s administration from 1869 to 1877 was full of governmental mischief from start to finish. Staff members resigned over a host of scandals such as bribery, extortion, financial kickbacks, embezzlement and causing the gold market to crash.
Grant the President
Grant had a bad habit of hiring the wrong people. He also had an even worse habit of remaining loyal to these malcontents who were steadfastly throwing his presidential administration under the bus, to use a current vernacular.
Grant’s presidency did have some accomplishments such as the passage of the Fifteenth Amendment that allowed African-American males over the age of twenty-one the right to vote, the 1875 Civil Rights Act which prohibited discrimination and segregation against African-Americans in public settings, his “Peace Policy” for Native Americans and establishment of the U.S. Department of Justice. However, it’s hard to point to your triumphs when your failures are more pronounced and politically salacious.
After his presidency Grant tried to settle back into a normal life, but it was hard due to financial missteps on his part. However, Grant used this time to write his memoirs, which provided the public with its first insight into the presidency. When he died of throat cancer in 1885 over one million people gathered in New York City to watch Grant’s funeral procession and burial ceremonies.
According to Joan Waugh, author of Pageantry of Woe: The Funeral of Ulysses S. Grant, Grant’s funeral was a “spectacle, replete with religious, patriotic, and nationalistic imagery and rhetoric” and that across the country thousands of eulogies and obituaries for Grant “stressed his Christian moral character” and military role in “preserving the Union.” Not much was said about his presidency, which was to be expected.
In the years after his presidency there was a movement to honor Grant with a statue in honor of his work for his country. Though his presidency practically drowned in scandal, Grant’s reputation was saved by one major historical fact. Prior to his presidency, Grant was the magnificent general who led the Union Army to victory against the Confederates in the American Civil War. Grant supporters’ arguments carried the day and the Grant Memorial was built after his death, just like all the other presidential memorials.
Yet the Grant Memorial is not like other presidential memorials. What makes it different is that it is a military memorial that honors a former president.
The Making of the Memorial
The Grant Memorial was made using bronze for the statues and white marble for the platforms. Sculptor Henry Shrady took over twenty years to finish it and died before the dedication ceremonies. Montagna said that Shrady never got a chance to “bask in the glow of adulation regarding the memorial.”
Shrady designed the Grant Memorial to include three sections consisting of Grant in the middle with images of a cavalry charge and an artillery unit on his left and right of Grant statue.
The largest section of the memorial statue at over seventeen feet is Grant posed on a horse with his sword sticking high in the air. The statue exudes strength of character and decisiveness, personality traits that probably served him well during the Civil War. Savage said that Grant “looms above in majestic isolation” over his troops “in his own world, separated from the ordinary soldier. Montagna said that Grant looks “cool and unflappable while all hell is breaking loose around him.”
The ‘hell’ that Montagna is referring to is reflected in the faces of the artillery unit and cavalry charge statues that are next to Grant. These statues show a different side of war.
In the artillery group the men are readying for battle with their faces set in determination for the inevitable with their howitzer in tow. The leader of the artillery looks as if he was caught giving an order in mid-sentence. The horses are charging full steam ahead, necks arched almost prancing while they churn up water and mud as their hooves try to find traction in the land.
As for the cavalry group their determination has given way to fear and pain. The men are huddled together fighting off the cold as their cart takes them to another battle. A horse has lost his footing and is falling down. Unfortunately it has taken a soldier with him who most uncertainly will be trampled to death. The soldier’s face is crying out but no one seems to hear him. Savage said that if you didn’t know any better you would think that it’s an “anti-war” memorial.
The Grant Memorial was highly praised upon its dedication. It also was seen as a first step in the revitalization of Union Square, what is now the National Mall. The goal (McMillan Plan), according to the Commission on the Arts (commonly known as the McMillan Commission) at the time was to have more gardens and parks surrounding the memorial. Instead something called the Lincoln Memorial, built to honor the sixteenth president was dedicated in May 1922, one month after the Grant Memorial dedication. Just like that – the dwarfing of the Grant Memorial had begun.
As more memorials and a reflecting pool popped up along the National Mall the view of the Grant Memorial became more obscure. Others such as Grant historian James Goode and the Washington Post’s Paul Richard have championed the Grant Memorial to raise its recognition, but not too much avail. Too add insult to injury the memorial was also getting worked over by the elements.
Rain and snow created a type of rust that coated the pristine bronze statues of Grant Memorial with a green-like coating that oozed its way down onto the marble. The marble platforms and ballasts have cracks and missing pieces. Not much was done about it until the 1980s when the National Parks Services began cleaning and waxing it again.
Catherine Dewey, Architectural Conservator at the National Park Service said in an “ideal world” the memorial would be cleaned at least once a year. However, she said that the cleaning of monuments and memorials are “partially based on need” and the “higher profile” of the monument.
“Sometimes it’s hard to pick and choose which memorials and monuments deserve funds and which will have to wait a while.” said Montagna.
Dewey said that the National Park Service is seeking funds for the restoration of the Grant in the next few years. In the interim, since the Grant Memorial is not the Lincoln, the Vietnam or the Jefferson it has to wait for its turn in the cleaning rotation.
It is highly unlikely that the Grant Memorial will ever see the number of visitors as the Lincoln or the Jefferson. Savage said the area around the memorial is not set-up for visitors, with the reflecting pool blocking access to the memorial. Plus he said “it’s Grant – not Lincoln” and that “each has a much different place in our memory.”
Yet there are people out there who think that the Grant Memorial still has a shot at recognition. Savage said that the memorial needs to be “interpreted for contemporary use” with kiosks, podcasts or audio and “create a whole new physical circulation to the Mall area” to include the Grant memorial in its foot traffic. Or maybe the memorial should be rebranded as a statue-like movie as described by Richards “offering horses at full gallop drama, ceaseless action, bugle calls, grunts and screams.” Also, Grant has become pretty popular in the publishing industry, with some authors saying that his presidency wasn’t all that bad. But is that enough?
Maybe the Grant Memorial one day will get the recognition its supporters thinks it deserves. But as long as it is staring across the Lincoln Memorial that recognition will always be hard to find.
But hope springs eternal.
Updated April 2, 2018
If you are a connoisseur of media politics the 1960 presidential debates between John Fitzgerald Kennedy and Richard Milhous Nixon brought attention to the power of television and the declining importance of radio. The groupthink about the debates is that Kennedy won over the television debate audience while Nixon reigned over those who heard it on the radio. Was there such a disparate reaction to the candidates? Would Kennedy have lost to Nixon if the debates were not televised?
In looking at the Boston Globe’s coverage of the debates and the election, the supposed dichotomous television and radio public reactions to the Kennedy-Nixon debates and the assumptions surrounding its impact on Kennedy and Nixon are simply myths quoted as facts. Most importantly, the so-called facts supporting this myth are based on Kennedy and Nixon’s presidencies and not the debates themselves.
Unfortunately, it is a foregone conclusion to many historians, political operatives, political junkies and those in-between that Nixon lost the election because Kennedy beat him during the first televised debate on the image factor. Nixon looked tired. Kennedy was vibrant. Nixon seemed cranky. Kennedy was hopeful. Nixon was nervous and sweaty. Kennedy was confident and relaxed. Then in the same breath these same individuals proclaim that Nixon was the winner of the debate for those who tuned in via radio instead of television. Nixon is then described as strong versus Kennedy’s hesitancy. Nixon was knowledgeable. Kennedy was a neophyte. Nixon’s enunciation was clear. Kennedy’s accent made it hard to understand him.
A whole cottage industry on the media-effect of the Kennedy-Nixon debate has sprung up since the 1960 election. Most interesting, the analysis that Kennedy won the televised debate and Nixon the radio version is like an urban legend that has been infinitely repeated until it became accepted gospel.
1960 Political/Cultural Climate & The Boston Globe
The 1960 presidential election was of importance to the American electorate because of the changing political and cultural landscape. At that time Americans had international concerns about the spread of communism, exemplified by then Soviet Union President Nikita Khrushchev. The Russians were believed to be interested in the destruction of democracy and the United States, not necessarily in that order. Cuban Prime Minister Fidel Castro had confiscated over $770 million of U.S. property in response to the U.S. embargo of their country. The Berlin Wall was under construction in East Germany. France tested its first atomic bomb, as they became a nuclear power along with the United States, the United Kingdom and what was then known as the USSR.
Stateside the country was facing civil unrest over the enforcement of school integration as a result of the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954. Also, then President Dwight Eisenhower signed into law the Civil Rights Act of 1960, which provided voting rights protection and prohibited voting obstruction. The iconic image of the civil rights movement for the year was of four African-American students who decided to stage a sit-in at a segregated Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina. Other signals of cultural change were the U.S. Drug Administration’s approval of the first oral contraceptive and the publication of Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird, the best-selling, Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about criminal injustice.
Many of the major city newspapers such as the Boston Globe covered the international events with as much intensity as they did local coverage. The Globe prided itself on its international coverage and had various foreign bureaus in Moscow, East Asia, the United Kingdom and Africa. Locally, the paper covered primarily the Greater Boston area, which included six counties and parts of Rhode Island and New Hampshire.
The history of the Globe began in 1872 with a group of Boston businessmen and a $150,000 investment. By 1960 the paper had more than 300,00 subscribers that read its daily morning, afternoon, evening and Sunday editions.
The contents of the Boston Globe back then were about the same as the typical newspaper today. The paper had several sections such as the main/headline news, editorial, sports, style, entertainment and classifieds section. Interestingly, the style section had a subsection dedicated to its female readers titled “Women’s Section.” These articles were normally about cooking, the latest fashions, conducting the proper dinner party, how to raise proper children and what you need to do to keep your husband happy. The sports section was pretty expansive with heavy coverage and action photo shots on professional sports, mostly the Boston Red Sox and college football. Since it was the year of the Summer Olympics Muhammad Ali (then known as Cassius Clay) received a lot of newspaper coverage for his gold medal in boxing. The editorial and main pages were mostly in synch topically, whether the subject was on the Cold War, poverty, education or local corruption. As for the classifieds section it was easily several pages in length with more than twenty advertisements per page.
As for its readership, the newspapers’ audience was primarily white; therefore its contents were directed towards that audience. Though 1960 was a year of pivotal civil rights issues, images or news about Blacks, beyond the sports section were generally absent from the Globe. The Boston Globe also looked much like the other large metropolitan papers in font-style and its use of photographs. The font was Times Roman and its photographs weren’t too fancy, with many of the subjects caught in close-up facial or full-length body shots.
The articles themselves varied in size from blurbs, to several paragraph to investigative-length pieces. What is interesting is that a good portion of the articles carried over to a second page, even if some of them could have fit on one page. The paper looked and felt as if it was cramming as much news as possible so that its readers would be truly informed, even though they were sometimes publishing three daily editions.
Overview of the Candidates
At the time of the 1960 presidential campaign, John F. Kennedy was 43 years-old and in his second term as the junior Senator from Massachusetts, this after serving six years in the House of Representatives for Massachusetts’ 12th district. Nixon at 47 was in his second-term as the Vice-President of the United States under President Eisenhower. Prior to his vice-presidency, Nixon had been elected to the House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate from the state of California.
Kennedy, who graduated from Harvard, was young, handsome, intelligent and rich who happened to be married to an elegant and beautiful wife. He was viewed as someone on the rise, primarily due to his family connections, as a man with new ideas, though his Senate voting record sometimes didn’t follow the party line. That is, when he actually was present to vote in the Senate. He had missed a lot of voting sessions due to ongoing back problems that were exacerbated by his World War II war wounds. Kennedy had gained national prominence by finishing second in the 1956 vice-presidential nominee balloting at the Democratic Convention. The following year he received a Pulitzer Prize for his book Profiles in Courage. Though by 1960 Kennedy had given the now-famous ‘New Frontier’ speech about new ideals and public service to “combat poverty, ignorance, [and] war,” his nomination was still viewed as “more of a triumph of organization and evaluation than of deep dedication.”
Nixon’s personal and political background was a bit less meteoric, but still noteworthy. He had worked at his family’s grocery store while pursuing his undergraduate degree at Whittier College. He finished second in his class at Duke University’s School of Law. Nixon was a practicing attorney when he signed up for the U.S. Navy after the attack on Pearl Harbor. He served in the Navy for four years where he rose to the rank of Lieutenant Commander during World War II. Nixon first gained national attention due to his House Un-American Activities Committee work that helped convict alleged Soviet Spy Alger Hiss. He was only 39 when he was selected by Eisenhower to be his vice-president. In 1952 Nixon gave his famous “Checkers” speech on national television in which he defended himself against influence-peddling allegations in order to remain on the ticket. As vice-president Nixon expanded the office’s role beyond Congressional legislation into national security matters. A prime example of this was his unplanned 1959 “Kitchen Debate’” with Khrushchev in which Nixon had “stood up to the bully.” Along with his friendly wife and young daughters, Nixon had garnered a lot of prestige and goodwill with the Republican Party and the public by the time he ran for president in 1960.
Aside from the usual political party stances (conservative versus liberal) on policy issues the candidates agreed much more than they disagreed. For example, they both planned to combat poverty, support American farmers, strengthen the education system, build up the economy, and protect the civil rights of Negroes (the vernacular used at that time for Blacks/African-Americans). Even Nixon had agreed that the differences between him and Kennedy were not so much in their goals, but in the means of achieving them. By the time the first debate rolled around Roscoe Drummond of the Globe said that the debates would hopefully “enable [the public] to appraise the candidates face to face” so that we can look at their “divergent statements back to back.”
Coverage of the Candidates
The Globe’s coverage of the candidates was mostly even-handed, surprising given the fact that Kennedy was a Boston politician. The paper apparently made a point of providing nearly daily coverage of each candidate’s campaign stops, policy statements, spousal comments with photos, and columnists‘ comments in support of Nixon or Kennedy. The stories on each candidate would appear on the same page, opposite pages or in the main news section. For example, in mid-September the Globe had an article titled “Jack Tells Nation He’d Outdo Reds” in which he criticized President Eisenhower’s handling of Soviet President Khrushchev and how he would deal with Russia and its president. On the same page was another article, “Nixon Would Suspend Criticism of Defense: Asks Moratorium While Reds Swarming Here” in which Nixon states that Kennedy is playing into the communists’ hands by criticizing America’s strategy against the Russians.
However, there were times that the Globe’s even-handed treatment of the candidates was absent. On occasion the paper referred to John F. Kennedy as ‘Jack’ not ‘Kennedy’ or ‘Senator Kennedy.’ Richard Nixon for the most part was referred to as ‘Nixon.’ Sometimes the use of Nixon’s name with his title ‘Vice President Nixon’ appeared in the body of the article. There were a couple of times during the pre/post debate coverage in which the paper used the candidates’ nicknames (‘Jack’ and ‘Dick’) in the same article.
The pre-debate articles showed separate photos of the candidates, set-up to face each other with the text of the column in the middle. Yet, the caption under the pictures could paint a slightly different picture. Nixon’s photo caption describes him as a “master debater” with Kennedy’s caption stating that he’s a “also a good talker.” It would appear that the columnist, John Harris, for this particular article might have a slight bias. Another nickname usage example was in the evening edition of the paper after the first debate, which was titled “Jack, Dick Survey Soviet Economic Surge at Close of Historic Debate.”
Also, in an editorial by Ralph McGill, a day after the debate refers to Kennedy as “Senator Kennedy” while Vice President Nixon is called “Mr. Nixon.” Of note is in the first paragraph he calls the candidates “Messrs. Kennedy and Nixon.” However, for the most part the paper used the candidates’ last name without their official titles throughout the Globe’s campaign coverage. One can conclude that maybe some of the columnists showed their Kennedy preference, if not necessarily the newspaper as a whole. Regarding Nixon, neither the Globe nor its columnists seem to have favored or expressed disfavor with Nixon, as if they were abstaining from making an opinion.
The rest of the coverage of the candidates such as photos and inside personal stories were perfunctory at best. The candidates were usually photographed close-up, smiling, waving or shaking hands at various campaign stops. You could never tell where they were campaigning because the photos were focused so tightly on the candidates. Their facial expressions rarely changed from relaxed or serious, except when they were emphatic about something. Then you would see the candidate pointing their fingers or their lips pursed, caught in the middle of a statement. Maybe the photographs were so general in nature because they were via the Associated Press and not the Globe.
Of note is the fact that the Globe hardly spent anytime on the candidates’ religious backgrounds, especially Kennedy’s Catholicism. Nixon was a Protestant so his religion wasn’t viewed as a problem. However, Kennedy’s Catholicism was considered a big issue because of American anti-Catholic sentiments. Many wondered whether he would follow the dictates of the people or the pope. Kennedy eventually felt compelled to state that:
I am not the Catholic candidate for President. I am the Democratic Party candidate for president who also happens to be a Catholic. I do not speak for the Church on public matters – and the Church does not speak for me.
The day before the debate coverage the Globe printed an article by Samuel Lubbell, a syndicated columnist and public opinion analyst. Lubbell stated that if Kennedy would lose the presidential election “it will not be primarily because he is a Catholic.” The article goes on to mention that Lubbell found “more persons shifting from their past voting habits because of religious considerations” but that a “widespread feeling” that Kennedy lacks experience in foreign affairs was hurting his candidacy. Maybe another reason why the Catholicism issue was not addressed much in the paper was because its readers were mostly Catholic and therefore saw this angle as irrelevant.
Though some at the Globe may have favored Kennedy for president prior to the paper’s official endorsement of Kennedy, its coverage did not significantly reflect the newspaper’s preference. Maybe the paper was adhering to journalistic objectivity in that they wanted to be a source of information and not just an assumed Kennedy supporter. Also, the paper may not have seen Kennedy as a favorite son given his tenuous connection to the Boston area. Kennedy had only lived in the Boston area up to the age of ten before his family relocated to New York. Afterwards he attended boarding schools and college outside of Massachusetts. Though Kennedy was a Massachusetts Senator, the Globe may have been sensitive to the idea that other journalists or the public would think that they were automatic Kennedy supporters, hence their balanced coverage.
Pre-Debate Coverage of the 1st Debate
When Kennedy and Nixon agreed to participate in the nation’s first televised presidential debate it did not come with much fanfare, given its media significance. Besides it being the first televised debate it was also the first debate between presidential candidates since future presidential candidates Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas’ famous verbal duels in 1858 to represent Illinois in the U.S. Senate.
The Globe’s first article announcing the Kennedy-Nixon debate was published at the end of August 1960. The article did not appear on the front page, and it was only seven short paragraphs in length. It mentioned that the first debate would last an hour; occur in Chicago on September 26th and the topic would be domestic affairs. Also, that there would be three other debates to occur sometime between late September through October. As for any potential hyperbole, the article added that the debate would be “history’s first face-to-face television and radio debates between major party nominees for President of the United States” and that Lincoln and Douglas could have never “dreamed of the vast audience” that Nixon and Kennedy will reach. In addition, unnamed congressmen predicted that the candidates’ appearances “may revolutionize political campaigning by substituting the living room for the county fairgrounds or the rear platform of a cross country train.”
After this semi build-up the Globe didn’t mention the upcoming first debate again until three days before the scheduled debate. In between the announcement of the debates and the actual debate the Globe published articles on the Kennedy and Nixon campaign travels, speeches, comments from their supporters and critics and political zingers that the candidates aimed at each other. The Boston voters did not see the historic significance to the upcoming debate either. In a Letter to the Editor dated September 25, 1960 a voter said that he could not “detect any difference” between Kennedy and Nixon and that they both “spout pious, vaporous platitudes, but some of their statements give you an idea of their make-up.”
Nevertheless, Kennedy and Nixon continued to campaign on their strengths and differences. Kennedy’s continued with his platform that the Eisenhower Administration was out of new ideas and that the nation had ground to a halt. Nixon reiterated he had the requisite experience to help the United States get through the difficult times that were ahead.
Three days before the debate, the Globe placed news of the upcoming debate on the first page, albeit at the bottom of the page. The article said that there was an “air of tenseness in both camps” and that the televised and radio broadcast of the debates will “literally blank out all other programs.” It added that Nixon, Kennedy and their staff were busy with “final preparations” and are “keenly aware of the high stakes.” The editorial section had more of a promotional quality to its write-up of the debate. It commented that:
It would be appropriate and useful for those who expect to vote Republican to listen to Sen. Kennedy with special attentiveness and for those who expect they are going to vote Democratic to listen to Vice President Nixon with extra care.
The day of the debate another editorial said that the televised argument would allow for “voter enlightenment” due to the “mingling of claims of the Republican candidate” and the “assertions” of the his Democratic foe.” Another article reminded its readers about the debate’s start time, parameters, its topic and that it could have a “devastating potential to make or break their campaign for the presidency.”
Post 1st Debate Coverage
The first debate was watched by over nearly 75 million viewers, though it was a sedentary affair. The candidates sat in chairs with a table between them except when they had to approach the lectern to make their opening and closing statements and during the Q & A section. The domestic affairs questions were on the topics of American poverty, civil rights for minorities, better education, the economy and why each thought they would be the better president. There weren’t any verbal miscues or raised voices, except possibly on how the federal government was going to pay for these social programs. Overall it was a polite debate.
The day after the debate editorial comments from outside the Boston area such as The New York Times described the debate as “at times, interesting, but at no time [an] inspiring picture” of the candidates. The Milwaukee Journal said that the debate was “unprecedented,” that it was “exciting” and most of all “informative.” The Seattle Times hoped that in future debates Kennedy and Nixon would “trade their verbal punches with less restraint and with less of an eye on the stopwatch.” The New York News called out the broadcasting industry in their criticism, asking, “If the TV tycoons won’t let Kennedy and Nixon at least try to do as well as Lincoln and Douglas did, why go on with [these] powder puff performances?” News icon Edward R. Murrow stated, “after last night’s debate the reputation of Messieurs Lincoln and Douglas is secure.”
The candidates’ own thoughts on the debates were bland at best. Kennedy said that the debate was “very useful” and that this and subsequent debates “could prove to be very important.” Nixon through his press secretary said he felt good about the debate.
As for the Boston Globe, its next day coverage of the debate was objective, sticking with analyses and opinions based on text of the debate. The newspaper’s headlines asked “Who Won On TV? You Guess,” described the candidates as “Aggressive Kennedy, Intense Nixon Array Beliefs in Sharpest Focus,” claimed that “Debate Proves There Are Differences Between Candidates,” or stated that “Jack, Dick Survey Soviet Economic Surge at Close of Historic Debate.” The articles themselves provided debate highlights and more descriptive comments on how the candidates answered the questions or looked when the other was responding to a question such as Kennedy looking tense or when Nixon glanced down.
Opinions on the debate came from academics, Globe columnists and Boston voters. Globe columnist Charles Claffey interviewed Bostonians at a “fashionable” hotel for their debate thoughts. John Bartlett said that the debate “reaffirmed [his] conviction beyond a shadow of a doubt” that Nixon is his choice for president. Lorie Walsh said that “she was a neutral” before watching the debate and that [she still is].” Frank Mullin said Kennedy “better expressed the views of the American public than Vice President Nixon.” Priscilla Howe, an independent voter thought, “both Kennedy and Nixon gave a wonderful show.” One unnamed television viewer said that they didn’t like either candidate, that they were “both hams.” Another Globe columnist, Douglas Crocket also spent time at a bar interviewing male voters. The bar patrons said that they became “bored” with the debate and that Nixon “agreed too much” with Kennedy. The Globe also took part in a newspaper pool with twelve other newspapers in which they all contacted a “Joe Smith” in their area to get their opinion of the debate. Boston’s Joe Smith said that “Kennedy appeared more sincere” and “Nixon appeared more hesitant and hedging.” The other Joe Smiths located in other areas such as Seattle, Washington, DC, and Minneapolis also favored Kennedy.
Globe columnists wrote up their opinions a couple of days after the debate. Sal Pett said that Nixon did better in the debate because of his “folksiness” in that he “engaged in good fellowship” and that his career “follows the traditional American success story.” Joseph Alsop said, “neither man fell flat on his face.” John Crosby said, “Kennedy outpointed Nixon,” but that the candidates were “awfully cautious.” Roscoe Drummond said both looked “scared and somber” and that Nixon was quick with a rebuttal and Kennedy showed a “full mastery of his subject matter.”
In the Globe’s Letter to the Editor section several Boston voters had opinions about the debate all across the sphere, that “Kennedy has the best answers to the ills of our country;” others said that “neither gave any indication” that they differed from their respective party’s predecessors, and that while another believed that “neither [is] a genius, but they like Nixon.”
Besides the candidates’ handling of the debate, a few articles had popped up about how they looked during their televised appearance, with the articles concentrated on Nixon. After the debate there were comments about Nixon’s health and appearance, that he looked like he had lost weight that he was worn out. The image issue was first mentioned in an article the day after the debate, in which Nixon said “[he thought he] lost a couple of pounds and it [might have shown] up on his face.” Right next to this column was another article about Nixon’s appearance. Nixon’s wife is quoted as saying her husband “looked wonderful on [her] TV set” in response to a reporter’s question if she thought her husband looked tired and thinner.
Two days later Nixon’s debate appearance started receiving more coverage. Columnist Doris Fleeson wondered if Nixon’s diet and bad knee hurt his television appearance. She mentioned that Nixon dieted to lose his “pudgy look” and to “tame his jowls” and that his infected knee as a result of surgery created “an awkwardness in his stance.” As for Kennedy, she said that the “cruel cameras were kind to his rounded face” which “refuses to betray campaign fatigue.” Fleeson’s colleague, Ralph McGill said that Kennedy “seemed fresher” and that Nixon “didn’t look too good.”
Later articles in the Globe inquired about Nixon’s health. A physician traveling with Nixon said that there was nothing wrong with the vice president. This same article was also the first time that Nixon’s debate makeup was mentioned as being a problem. Herbert Klein, Nixon’s press secretary attributed Nixon’s haggard look to the TV lights or the makeup he wore.
Don Hewitt, producer of the first debate recalled asking the candidates in the presence of each other if either of them wanted makeup. Both candidates declined, but Hewitt said that he noticed Nixon really needed makeup to “cover a sallow complexion and a growth of beard . . . I think.” Hewitt added that Nixon’s advisors did a “dumb thing” by not using the professional make-up artist who had come to do the candidates. Instead Nixon’s advisors “smeared him with a slapdash layer of something called ‘shavestick’ that looked . . . terrible.” Hewitt added that Kennedy was “well-tanned” from his “open-air” campaign stops in California.
Nixon’s makeup problem turned into mini-drama for a few days. The Globe ran an article (originally published by the Chicago Daily News) stating that the Makeup Artists and Hair Stylists Union believe that his makeup artist may have sabotaged Nixon. An agent for the union said that the makeup artist “loused [Nixon] up so badly that a Republican couldn’t have done that job.” The Nixon camp immediately stamped out this story while acknowledging that Nixon did not look good on television. Even Eisenhower chimed in about the “trials of television makeup” and that it’s too bad that “Dick has such a heavy beard.” Luckily, Nixon’s appearance improved by the time of his televised Republican fundraising event, which occurred a few days after the debate. It was noted that his face had a “strong appearance” and his “emaciated appearance was not in evidence.”
Afterward, Nixon’s makeup and health issue stories disappeared as the Globe fell back to its usual coverage of the candidates’ campaigns, perceived problem voters and Khrushchev. Globe coverage of the second, third, and fourth debates was far less than the first, in contrast to the steady television viewership numbers. Nielsen ratings showed that 28.1 million homes (total persons/viewership not available) tuned into the first debate; 27.9 million for the second; 28.8 million for the third and 27.3 million watched the last debate.
Kennedy was considered the winner of the first debate. Nixon was deemed the winner of the second debate, which was described as a “real slugfest.” The third debate ended in a draw with the 4th debate going to Kennedy.
The 1960 presidential election was very close in that Nixon could have possibly won the election. The day before the election the Globe said that the final Gallup Poll’s nationwide survey gave Kennedy a very slight edge. Kennedy only defeated Nixon by approximately 120,000 out of 68.8 million ballots cast. Political Journalist Theodore White wrote that:
. . . the margin of popular vote is so thin as to be, in all reality, nonexistent. If only 4,500 voters in Illinois and 28,000 voters in Texas changed their minds, the sum of their 32,000 votes would have moved both these states, with their combined 51 electoral votes into the Nixon column.
On November 8th, election day, the Globe’s evening edition projected Kennedy as the newly-elected president with big headlines and articles stating that a “record-size” election “piled up a margin” for Kennedy of “nearly 500,00 votes” over Nixon and that a “new generation has its chance.” Another election article referenced Kennedy as “its favorite son” which was the first time that the Globe used such a description in its campaign coverage. Nixon’s first debate appearance was mentioned in a Globe post-election editorial. Columnist Roscoe Drummond said that Nixon’s “5 o’clock” shadow” had “no place in [the] campaign” and that the debates caused the candidates not to deliver any “serious” or “substantial” speeches.
Two days after the election more Globe columnists had article headlines such as “Liberals Had Their Day;” “The Country Wanted Him” and “Kennedy Calmly Accepts Presidency, Asks Nation to Help.” By the time the third day of post-election rolled around the Globe’s coverage concentrated on Kennedy’s naming of some of his Administration’s staff, a sign that the election was over as far many were concerned. Yet, in the middle of these administrative write-ups was an article about Nixon “not quitting yet” and finding “faint hope in [a] recount.”
As for the comments from the Boston public about the election, it wasn’t the main topic of conversation based on Globe coverage. The newspaper did very little post-election interviewing or news articles of local voters as they did during the campaign. The Letters to the Editor section during the first three days after the election were on such non-election issues such as passengers being punished at Logan Airport, how to get a good job if you are over 50, and that the Boston area had a littering problem. The election was also old news as far as Bostonians were concerned.
However, there was an interesting September 11th article about Robert Kennedy, Jack’s brother stating that Kennedy would not have won the election had it not been for the televised debates. The article also added that Robert Kennedy believed that the election would have been “difficult” if the debates had been “on radio alone.” The article does not directly quote anyone from either campaign about these observations nor were there any post-election follow-up articles in the Globe about this radio-television analysis. Maybe the articles’ placement at the bottom of the page, along with the paper’s main headline being “Car Insurance Rates Up 11%,” signified the Globe’s lack of interest or belief in these conclusions.
Debate: Radio Audience vs. Television Audience
The myth that Kennedy won the television audience and Nixon the radio audience has been repeated so much that most consider it to be true or at least common knowledge. Anecdotes such as former Senator Bob Dole illustrate this myth. Dole recalled that he was “listening to [to the first debate] on the radio coming into Lincoln, Nebraska and thought Nixon was doing a great job.” However, when he saw the TV clips the next morning he thought Nixon “didn’t look well” and that Kennedy looked “young and articulate, and . . . wiped [Nixon] out.” The myth survives even though there are two important factors that undermines the myth’s truthfulness: 1) the number of debates and 2) audience statistics. First, the myth of Kennedy making TV mincemeat of Nixon because Kennedy was calm, cool and collected versus Nixon’s five o’clock shadow and sweatiness. Yes, Nixon did not look well in the first debate, but his appearance in subsequent debates had noticeably improved, and the story died. As stated earlier, Nixon lost the first debate, was declared the winner in the second debate, the third debate was a draw and the fourth debate slightly won by Kennedy. It is hard to conclude that Kennedy won the television debate crowd given the results of the additional debates.
Second, official data regarding the radio audience for the first debate or the other debates doesn’t exist. Though by 1960 over 52 million households owned a television set, a substantial number of the population still relied on their radio for news and information. The debates were broadcast live via television and radio; only TV viewership was officially tracked for the debates.
Much of the debate radio statistics that are mentioned appear to be anecdotal and do not cite from an official ratings source. Articles state that at least 20 million heard the debate or maybe it was 61 million. Ralph MacGill of the Globe said that he had a number of persons listen to the great debate on the radio and they “unanimously thought that Mr. Nixon had the better of it.” Except for MacGill’s anecdotal survey, the Globe did not make any statistical reference to radio listeners, just the total number of television viewers.
According to Pollster.com the only “true survey” that attempted to gauge the debate reactions among television and radio listeners was conducted on November 7, 1960 the day of the elections. Sidlinger and Company did a telephone sample survey in which 282 persons responded. Their survey said that 48.7% of the radio audience thought that Nixon won and 21% picked Kennedy; of the surveyed television audience 30.2% named Kennedy the debate winner with 28.6% picking Nixon. Also, they projected that 270 million watched the debates and 61.4 million listened to them on the radio.
Though this is the only known survey to track the radio and television audience, note that it did not survey either audience during or immediately after the first debate. Also the small sample size also makes the survey suspect. The fact that the survey is rarely mentioned, if ever, in support of the Kennedy-Nixon debate myth raises more flags than provide validation of the myth. As a result, the myth is never backed up with statistical evidence, just personal narratives and anecdotes, which have yet to be proven.
Based on the Boston Globe’s debate and election coverage it is safe to say that neither the first Kennedy-Nixon debate nor the latter debates had much of an impact on the electorate. More importantly, the media myth surrounding the television vs. radio reaction to the Kennedy-Nixon debates is not supported by the Globe’s coverage. The Globe did not concentrate on the candidates’ televised debate looks to Kennedy’s benefit and Nixon’s detriment nor did they publish any data supporting such viewer preference. Also, the Globe did not report any comprehensive radio listener survey or findings that supported radio listeners’ preference for Nixon over Kennedy.
As stated earlier, Kennedy and Nixon debated four times within a one-month period. If Kennedy’s debate performance was so strong and he looked so much better than Nixon, then why did he win by only 120,000 votes? The myth doesn’t have an answer for this particular fact.
Television did play an important part in the debates due to its novelty, not because of any Kennedy-Nixon imagery that significantly favored Kennedy. The Globe’s coverage talked about how interesting it would be to see presidential candidates on the same stage debating each other face-to-face, not on how they would look. The Globe was more fascinated by the millions of viewers who would simultaneously watch the first debate. Nevertheless, the Globe’s coverage emphasized the issues and how each candidate responded to the debate questions, not how they looked on television. The minimal amount of coverage about Kennedy and Nixon’s looks post-debates, especially Nixon’s, contradicts the myth that Kennedy’s handsomeness and Nixon’s paleness led to Kennedy winning the television debate audiences.
The myth that Nixon won the radio audience is also suspect based on Globe coverage. The Globe’s headlines talked about the millions of viewers who watched the first debate. Official and comprehensive radio viewership was not tracked by any polling service; nor mentioned in the Globe. The Globe only published anecdotal comments about how some local radio listeners thought Nixon won the debate.
Where the myth began to take shape and take on a life of its own is hard to determine. However, the myth’s believability is tied to Kennedy’s death and Richard Nixon’s pre/post-presidency years.
After losing the 1960 presidential election, Nixon went back to California after which he ran for governor of California in 1962, a race he lost. In 1963 Kennedy was assassinated, becoming historically frozen in time yet making gains in becoming one of the nation’s most admired presidents. Nixon ran again for president in 1968, finally winning after beating Democratic candidate Hubert Humphrey and Independent candidate George Wallace on a platform promising societal stability.
By the time that Nixon was into his second term (1972-1976) his accomplishments were many. Unfortunately Nixon’s Watergate actions led to his 1974 resignation before he would have been impeached. Afterwards Nixon’s image was forever changed. Gone was the poor boy who obtained full scholarships to go to college and law school, who faced down Khrushchev, who went on TV for the first time and successfully fought for his honor; who battled his way back from potential political obscurity after the 1960 election, and who, as president signed the first arms control treaty with the Soviet Union. All that was left was a president who authorized and then attempted to cover-up the break-in of Democratic Party’s headquarters and who enjoyed taping conversations without anyone’s knowledge.
Nixon came to personify the worst of presidents while Kennedy came to symbolize the best. Nixon was ‘Tricky Dick’ while Kennedy was ‘Camelot.’ After Watergate other presidential candidates intentionally or unintentionally attempted to become the next Kennedy while Nixon was an emulation to avoid at all costs.
The avoidance of Nixon’s presidential missteps somehow morphed into a ‘how-not-to-do-a-debate” training video for politicians on the rise. Post-Reagan politicians saw Nixon as someone who didn’t know how to work the television media like Kennedy. This thought completely ignores Nixon’s successful media experience with his ‘Checkers’ speech where he defended his political integrity, his impromptu “Kitchen Debate’ with Khrushchev and his latter strong debates with Kennedy.
Yet, Nixon has become not only a bad president but also a horrible debater whose dark and sweaty visage was a precursor to his Watergate years. Kennedy had become the bright political light that politicians want to be and the public wants to lead their country.
As political pundits, consultants, and analysts have become and probably will continue to be part of political campaigns the Kennedy-Nixon debate media myth will be promulgated again and again. That is until some other candidates’ political actions knock Nixon and Kennedy off of their mythical media thrones. Then again, maybe this myth is here to stay, which is probably the only factual thing about it.
Note: American University journalism graduate paper submitted by Angelia Levy – March 2010
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