Growing up just outside of Washington, DC, we had a Zenith TV with a ‘Space Command Remote Control’ that featured four buttons like giant front teeth which made a clicking sound when depressed. My parents bought the television so they could watch the historic “great debates” between Senator John Kennedy and Vice-President Richard Nixon. These were the first televised presidential debates, and by the end of the first one television had changed the face of the presidential campaign.
Nixon wore a grey suit which made him look ashen, and despite heavy make-up to mask his five o’clock shadow, he was visibly perspiring; his eyes frequently darting off to the side as though avoiding eye contact. Kennedy, on the other hand, appeared cool and confident – presidential, even.
Curiously, those who heard the debate on the radio declared Nixon the winner, while those who watched on TV were sure Kennedy had won. The spectacle of the televised debate was so terrifying that Lyndon Johnson refused to debate with Barry Goldwater in 1964, and Nixon refused in both 1968 and 1972. Debates only resurfaced in 1976 when Gerald Ford debated with Jimmy Carter; they have been part of the election process ever since.
Before the televised debates, we learned about the candidates by reading about them and seeing photographs – television allowed voters to consider who looked better, who had more personality. It reminded us of our inherent desire for beauty, for someone to elevate us; prophet, saviour – celebrity.
One thinks of the president as glamorous: JFK and Jackie Onassis hosting state dinners, a kind of heightened reality – like the stuff of fairytales. The presidency represents both the glamour and promise of the American Dream at its highest level. In his 1931 book The Epic of America, historian James Truslow Adams coined the phrase “American Dream”, going on to define it as a richer and fuller life for everyone, “with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement regardless of social class or circumstances of birth”. Early on, Richard Nixon defined himself as a “have not”, an underdog who resented the “haves” his entire life. In many ways it is remarkable that Nixon was ever even elected.
The American Dream is about equality: the idea that each, given his chance, can succeed – and yet Nixon’s abuse of the power of the presidency (as reflected in his comment to interviewer David Frost: “Well, when the president does it, that means that it is not illegal”) violated the public trust. Faith in the presidency was permanently damaged. Do we expect our president to be more moral than the rest of us? And what do we do if it turns out that presidential powers are being used in evil ways? What if our commander-in-chief is a Jekyll and Hyde character, a political wheeler-dealer with a charismatic face for television? Or is it just a magnification of the same space we all wrestle with, the gap between our public and private selves?
Following Nixon’s resignation, the American Dream shifted from being a communal idea of prosperity to a darker notion – that with no one looking out for us, every man should look out for himself. We see it in our gun laws and in the greed of Wall Street. The American Dream was no longer about ideas, but the acquisition of objects. We forgot that it had been born as a vision, a hope, rather than an entitlement. And further, history has revealed that the personality involved in the desire to be president is a very complex one; a larger than life appetite for approval got Bill Clinton impeached and likely a similar appetite had George W. Bush claiming Iraq had weapons of mass destruction.
Slowly we are realising that it is no longer a government for the people by the people. It’s a much larger, more moneyed game and we, as citizens, are a bit like innocent bystanders. Perhaps we are less naive than we once were, more savvy consumers as we shop for a president. But at the same time we have also become addicted to the television – our insatiable appetite is fed by a 24-hour news cycle where media compete for our attention and our consumer dollars and feed our addiction with salacious information that doesn’t always bear a close resemblance to fact.
It is now 2012; the old Zenith black-and-white TV has been replaced by a large flatscreen in the sitting room and a smaller one in the kitchen. My parents, now 86 and 94 years old, travel through the house floating from television to television, the news constantly streaming. I call them every day. “What’s news?” I shout. They are almost deaf, the volume of the television is so loud that all I hear in the background are the voices of pundits inundating my parents with opinions.
I beg them to turn off the televisions, and when they do there is a moment of silence. Then we can talk, we can think for ourselves and we can decide what happens next.
May We Be Forgiven by A.M. Homes is out now, published by Granta.