I came across an article today that gave me great pause: the first presidential debates were between Kennedy and Nixon, sixty years ago! What gave me pause was that I clearly remember them.
I did not grow up with television. When all the other kids on my block were getting sets, I was reading books. My dad listened faithfully to the radio news every night—I’m sure either Edward R. Murrow or Walter Cronkite. He saw no reason to get one of those new-fangled television things. When I confessed that to a friend tonight, she said, “you missed Howdy Doody and Disney on Sunday Night.” I’m sure I did, as well as Lassie, Huckleberry Hound, the Mickey Mouse Club, Rin Tin Tin and a host of others. But while other kids were watching Lassie, I was reading Albert Payson Terhune’s books.
All that changed when it was announced that Kennedy and Nixon would debate, and the debates would be carried live on television. Dad went out and bought a cheap television on a cheap metal stand—no grand and glorious wood-encased console for us. The thing sat scrunched in an out-of-the-way corner in the living room, between the small entry and the piano. To watch you either had to sit on the couch or on the bottom stairs—or turn Mom’s wing chair around so it faced the TV.
Dad was an ardent Democrat—we were, after all, in Chicago. Mom, to my memory, was just as ardent in her dislike of Nixon. I’m sure if she’d objected to him during the debates, Dad would have tried to shush her. But in later years, when Nixon finally became president, she would demand that we all look at him and note how shifty his eyes were.
I remember watching those debates. No, alas, I was not a young child. I was probably twenty-one, and I watched with my then-boyfriend. I have no idea of his political leanings, but I know he, the son of a widowed father, liked the family atmosphere at our house. And probably the meals too.
After the debates, Dad watched the evening news regularly, but I do not remember that they got a new and better TV set until 1969 when they retired and built their dream house in North Carolina.
Meantime, I think that childhood without TV shaped me. There have been periods in my life when I watched some programs fairly faithfully—probably “West Wing” was my all-time favorite, but I liked mysteries and some sit-coms in the eighties and nineties.
But as the years went by, I became less and less of a TV fan. Reality shows seemed inane to me, as did game shows like “Jeopardy” and “Wheel of Fortune.” Whereas most of my friends could rattle off names of people made famous by TV, I was ignorant. I knew and occasionally watched Johnny Carson, but my nose was more often in a book.
Today, in the mornings at my desk, I keep the TV on, mostly for the news and to keep one eye on it so that I don’t miss something I need to see, like this morning’s impressive ceremony in the Capitol when Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg lay in state, welcomed by an all-woman program. A mind-blowing moment for me—so impressive.
I will watch the debates, though I often turn the TV off when trump comes on because his bluster and lies make me so angry. But I realize we are living in a significant moment in history, and I will watch and try to avoid Mom’s tendency to yell at the TV when he speaks. I would not be the first to draw a comparison between Nixon and trump, though trump usually comes off as the worst of the two. (Mom’s yelling was, by the by, so uncharacteristic of the type of woman she was, it always amazed me.)
Tonight, though, the TV is off, and I have a new mystery on my Kindle that I’m itching to get to. So, sweet dreams everyone.