Miller Center

The Presidency in the Television Era

Recasting American Presidential History in the Classroom > The Presidency in the Television Era
Television in the 1950s. Image courtesy Paul Townsend, flickr.com (CC-BY)

The post-WWII era emerged as a key moment for understanding the rise of entertainment, advertising, and television in American politics. Television, a new technology, drastically altered the political scene during the 1950s. While in 1949 only 172,000 television sets had sold, this number jumped to over 52 million sets by 1953.

This dramatic growth forced politicians to grapple with presenting themselves and their policies to voters through celluloid images rather than newspapers articles, radio broadcasts, or local party structures. The 1952 election marked the first time that presidential candidates turned to television to communicate their message to voters.

Dwight Eisenhower, the famous military general from WWII, worked with top advertisers from Madison Avenue in New York City and prominent Hollywood actors like Robert Montgomery and George Murphy to construct catchy television advertisements that emphasized the personality of the GOP candidate.

Adlai Stevenson, the governor of Illinois and Democratic presidential nominee, pursued a different strategy. Stevenson showed disdain for the new medium that sold presidential candidates as commodities and instead chose to broadcast a series of televised information sessions with voters. These 30-minute talks reflected the eloquent speaker’s proclivity for longer oratory, but running these advertisements late at night in cheaper spots resulted in fewer views. The shorter political advertisements that the Democratic campaign did run had a different message and tone than those from the Republican camp.

This section examines the ways in which presidents responded to the technological development of television and how it influenced electoral campaigns, communications strategies, and party structures.  In new scholarship that excavates the contentious debate surrounding media development and its impact on the pursuit of the White House, historians have shown the process by which presidential hopefuls grappled with the new medium and the expertise television demanded of them to win elections and govern.1 The 1952 and 1956 contests between Eisenhower and Stevenson revealed contrasting approaches to television. Eisenhower reluctantly listened to the advice of professional showmen in Hollywood and on Madison Avenue, elevating their role in the Republican Party. Playing to the broader concern about the destructive effects of “propaganda,” Adlai Stevenson emphasized the “substance” of his campaign over his opponent’s style.2 Eisenhower’s electoral success accentuated the role of television and advertising in politics as he became a “TV President” by regularly visiting the living rooms of voters both on the campaign trail and later, as president.

Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library

 He held the first televised presidential press conference and appointed an actor, Robert Montgomery, as his television advisor.3 By emphasizing his personality rather than partisan identity, Eisenhower’s approach to television ushered in the modern candidate-centered campaign and made media advisors—both from Hollywood and Madison Avenue—central to presidential communication and electoral success. Eisenhower’s successors faced the challenge of using television to win elections and to govern. Eisenhower may have been the first “Primetime president,” but John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon’s careful study of television resulted in the triumph of what historian Kathryn Cramer Brownell calls “the era of showbiz politics.”4 

In this section, students are encouraged to view the development of the presidency through the lens of media.  As they examine how individuals, cultural values, and political attitudes about television shape and are shaped by “new media,” they will consider ways in which the structures, expertise, and responsibilities of the presidency changes as the media landscape has evolved. 

The Making of the Celebrity Presidency

In 1956, a Princeton political scientist examined ways in which political consultants, hired by presidential campaigns to help construct their candidate’s image and media message, changed power dynamics. Stanley Kelley Jr. observed that the “adman” was replacing the party boss. Rather than doling out patronage to gain power and cultivate voter loyalty, the consultant worked to mold public sentiment by fighting “battles in the mind of the voter” using television. In his book, Professional Public Relations and Political Power, Kelley explores the possibilities of creating a “star system in politics” through the media, in contrast to climbing up the party ladder through years of service.


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Kelley argued that Eisenhower’s successful presidential bids showed the effectiveness of a candidate-centered campaign that translated publicity into political power:

In execution, however, Republican strategy was as well calculated to win votes among marginal Democrats as among non-voting groups. Essentially, the party’s propagandists concentrated their efforts on two things: (1) marketing the personality of the candidate; and (2) attempting by ceaseless attack to set the issues. The importance of Eisenhower’s personal popularity as a determinant of the elections outcome perhaps holds a lesson for the future party recruitment of candidates…For it emphasized once again the political advantages that accrue to anyone who holds what might be called a ‘position in the spotlight’—a position which attracts great amounts of free publicity in the normal course of news dissemination.…It is not impossible for someone outside the spotlight’s usual play to capture public imagination, but it remains a question whether it is possible for such persons to do so in the absence of a systematic, large scale, privately sponsored publicity build-up.5

During and after the 1956 election, presidential contenders sought to use television to gain a “position in the spotlight” while also combating fears of media manipulation and propaganda, which created anxiety about the political use of television in the post-WWII period. This section offers students an opportunity to examine the behind-the-scenes campaign strategy and the product of that strategy as it played out on television.

Secondary Sources

  • Kathryn Cramer Brownell, “The Making of the Celebrity Presidency,” in Recapturing the Oval Office: New Historical Approaches to the American Presidency, ed. Brian Balogh and Bruce J. Schulman. (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2015), 162–174.
  • Susan J. Douglas, “Presidents and the Media,” in Recapturing the Oval Office: New Historical Approaches to the American Presidency, ed. Brian Balogh and Bruce J. Schulman. (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2015), 143-161.

Discussion Questions

  • How did “new media” shape communication strategies from Eisenhower to Nixon?  How do these political advertisements evolve over time?
  • What lessons about media successes and failures do the members of Nixon’s media team learn from studying Eisenhower and Kennedy’s campaigns? 
  • Kathryn Cramer Brownell argues that Kennedy, and then Nixon, each used a “slick, high-octane machine” to transform himself into a celebrity to win the White House. How, specifically, does this “Hollywood dream machine” function in their campaigns?  
  • How does the “age of showbiz politics” that Brownell describes during the 1960s compare to McKinley’s experience with mass circulated newspapers, which Susan Douglas discusses, or Theodore Roosevelt’s publicity strategies, which David Greenberg discusses at the turn of the twentieth century?  

Connecting Presidential Collections Research Activity: The 1960 Television Debates

The 1960 television debates dominate the memory of the 1960 election.  Images of a pale Nixon with a sweaty brow are frequently contrasted with Kennedy’s tan and ease before the camera and contemporary media accounts of the event frequently describe it as a night when television revolutionized American politics

 And yet, historians contend that this memory of the 1960 television debates is more myth than reality. Media historian Michael Schudson has argued that these debates have become “part of our telemythology, a set of widely circulated stories about the dangerous power of television.”

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“Social scientists cite the finding that citizens who listened to the Kennedy–Nixon debate on radio judged Nixon the winner; those who watched television found Kennedy the winner….This is presented as conclusive evidence of the distorting lens of television; one is distracted by the appearance of things, the superficial look of people rather than the cogency of their arguments.

The basis for all this is a study undertaken by a Philadelphia market research firm that found that radio listeners judged Nixon the winner by 43 percent to 20 percent, while a majority (53 percent) of television viewers judged the debate a draw, or refused to name a winner. Of those willing to name a winner, 29 percent chose Kennedy and 19 percent Nixon.

Even if we accept this study as valid (and it was never reported in a form to make serious analysis possible), there are two problems with the way it has been used. The first problem concerns the presumption that radio is a distortion-free medium. Is the human voice itself not a medium? Is radio not a medium, too? Are words conveyed through radio a pure rendering of logical relations? Or does the voice—specifically, the radio transmitted voice—give special weight to sonority and to the verbal tics and tricks of an experienced and skilled debater that have no necessary relation to the validity of the arguments themselves? Might radio have exaggerated Kennedy’s Boston accent as part of his nature and therefore put people off?…Second, is television imagery so obviously superficial? Was it not important, and truthful, to see that Kennedy, despite his youth, was able to handle the most public moment of his life with assurance? Was it not important, and truthful, to see Nixon, despite his vast experience, looking awkward and insecure? Isn’t it possible to argue that the insecurity he showed betrayed his manner and motive in public life?

…If the belief in television power is a large part of what makes television powerful, it may not be television but our beliefs about it that help undo a vital politics.”6

Schudson’s analysis brings up an important historical question: what role did the television debates play in the 1960 election? Did they “revolutionize” campaigns as the event’s producer Don Hewitt remembered in a 2002 oral history?

Are they reflective of Nixon and Kennedy’s broader media strategies or were they a distinctive, defining moment of the campaign? Or, have they become part of our national “telemythology,” as Schudson contends?

To examine this question, have students research how journalists and participants crafted the narrative of the debate and how it has changed over time.

  1. Watch the debates. As a student of American history, how does Richard Nixon’s performance compare to John Kennedy’s?
  2. Research media coverage of the debates at the time through Proquest Historical Newspapers.
  3. Through the Connecting Presidential Collections, the John F. Kennedy Library, and the C-SPAN Video Archive, research the oral histories of the debates. How do the memories of the debate compare to the historical reality of the debates?
Footnotes
  1. Most recently, see: Kathryn Cramer Brownell, Showbiz Politics: Hollywood in American Political Life, (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2014); David Greenberg, Republic of Spin: A Secret History of the American Presidency, (New York: W. W. Norton, 2016); Kevin Kruse, “’Why Don’t You Just Get an Actor?’: The Advent of Television in the 1952 Campaign,” in America at the Ballot Box: Elections and Political History, ed. Gareth Davies and Julian E. Zelizer, (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015), 167-183.

  2. David Greenberg, “A New Way of Campaigning: Eisenhower, Stevenson, and the Anxieties of Television Politics,” in Liberty and Justice for All?: Rethinking Politics in Cold War America, ed. Kathleen G. Donohue, (Boston: University of Massachusetts Press, 2012).

  3. Craig Allen, Eisenhower and the Mass Media: Peace, Prosperity, and Prime-Time TV, (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1993).

  4. Brownell, Showbiz Politics.

  5. Stanley Kelley Jr. Professional Public Relations and Political Power, (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1956), 199–200.

  6. Michael Schudson, The Power of News, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1996), 116–123.

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