American presidents are like X-Men -- there's a ridiculous number of them, and most of their backstories are either too weird or too boring to retain your interest. That's why we cling to certain well-known tales that help us easily label and categorize our presidents. For instance, we all know that Teddy Roosevelt was a cowboy badass, George Washington was a great general, and Andrew Jackson was frequently forced to take time off to battle the Juggernaut.
There's only one problem with these little nuggets of awesome: Not nearly all of them are true. For instance, have you heard the one where ...
5 Nixon Won the Radio Debate, but Kennedy Won on Television
The 1960 presidential debates between Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy were the first to be broadcast on television. This ended up playing a pretty big role in deciding the election: While the wily statesman Nixon was the better orator on the radio, the young, handsome, photogenic Kennedy easily beat his sweaty, scruffy opponent on TV, which was one of the key moments on his road to the presidency. It's a useful story that simultaneously manages to inspire and confirm our fears about the triumph of image over substance.
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In a perfect, rational world, we'd choose Nixon every time.
There's really no evidence that things went like this. The TV debate legend comes from a single poll by a market research firm and is so full of holes that it's like someone's been machine-gunning a colander. The survey's radio part was based on just 282 radio listeners, only 172 of whom bothered to actually answer it. Those numbers are part of a very important statistical subset known as "way the hell not enough." Seriously, hand anyone with a touch of political knowledge a survey of 172 random people and tell them it represents the national opinion. See how it goes, we'll wait.
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Why, it'd be as bad as picking the president by polling 172 corn farmers.
This ridiculously inadequate "survey" was the only one that claimed to distinguish between TV and radio owners. In general, the surveys mostly found that Kennedy had won, but that was less to do with his image and more to do with the fact that he, you know, performed much better in the debate than Nixon. You don't have to trust our word -- here's a video:
If you watched that clip, you'll notice that Kennedy looked more like a murder doll from some terrible episode of The Twilight Zone than a suave hunk. But he talks a very good game, and Tricky Dick is clearly a bit overwhelmed.
So if the survey is bullshit -- and we cannot emphasize enough that it probably is -- then how did the story become so widely accepted? Well, like we said earlier, it's a very useful story. Nixon's supporters got to blame their defeat on something other than their candidate being a corruption-mired misanthrope, academics got to drone on about the media's skewing influence on politics, and repressed '60s ladies got something to ogle in the family room.