Democrats chose young Rep. Joe Kennedy III to give their official response to President Trump’s first official State of the Union address Tuesday. Speaking from a vocational school in Fall River, Mass., the ginger-haired scion of Camelot spoke of opportunity, and unity, and transgender Americans, and tearing down a border wall. He was the conscience of the Resistance, invoking all the hashtags and buzzwords of these heady times, no matter how ironic coming from this particular speaker’s mouth — #MeToo, #BlackLivesMatter, “privilege.”
It is a pretty thankless job. I am not at all prone to empathize with the Kennedys, but I don’t envy anyone this speaking slot. It is the worst of all public perception games. A State of the Union speaker has to follow an historic address to a joint session of Congress dripping in more than 100 years of tradition, pomp and circumstance. He’s a rhetorical drizzle after a thunderclap. The expectations placed upon this speaker are inexplicably high given almost no one succeeds in doing what the opposition hopes, which is embodying the voice, vision, and future of a fractured and grumpy minority party.
Every year, we set these suckers up and we let them swan dive into the inevitability of giant, public failure. And, the reasons for the failures are usually nonsense. Bobby Jindal was too sing-songy and reminded us of Kenneth from “30 Rock.” Tim Kaine was notable only for his wandering eyebrow. Sen. Marco Rubio … took a sip of water. There’s nothing particularly wrong with any of these speeches if you go back and read them. They just can’t realistically compete with a State of the Union.
But I didn’t know it. I watched the State of the Union speech in a restaurant and was heading home in the car when Kennedy took the mic for the response. I listened to him on the radio.
The content of the speech was overwrought and I disagreed with most of it ideologically, but it felt like it played very well. He delivered it proficiently — the Kennedy flair for public speaking on display with an accent mellowed by three generations of Mid-Atlantic residence and media training. At times, it was pretty moving, and it was wise to deliver it in front of a live audience, as former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell did in 2010.
Not that anyone’s come calling, but I’d never do this gig without some real people in the room with me. Wandering around in some lifeless library ineffectually warmed by a staged fire in the hearth, Sebelius-style, would be a no go.
When I got home, I expected to open Twitter and tune into cable news for rave reviews of the third coming of Camelot, here to save us from President Donald Trump. But nope. All I saw was something about Kennedy’s lips. Was it drool? Was it a make-up malfunction? Was it Carmex? What everyone knew for sure is it was embarrassing, and just about no one listened to the speech.
So, the modern media environment takes down another rising star. In an interesting historical parallel, he’s not the first Kennedy to experience the stark difference between old and new media in shaping political perceptions. President John Kennedy, then the Democratic candidate running against Republican Richard Nixon, famously ended up on the right side of that divide in the first televised presidential debate in 1960.
What happened after the two candidates took the stage is a familiar tale. Nixon, pale and underweight from a recent hospitalization, appeared sickly and sweaty, while Kennedy appeared calm and confident. As the story goes, those who listened to the debate on the radio thought Nixon had won. But those listeners were in the minority. By 1960, 88% of American households had televisions — up from just 11% the decade before. The number of viewers who tuned in to the debate has been estimated as high as 74 million, by the Nielsen of the day, Broadcast Magazine. Those that watched the debate on TV thought Kennedy was the clear winner. Many say Kennedy won the election that night. Sorensen says the Kennedy team didn’t realize what a game changer the debate was until the following day at a campaign event in Ohio. “The crowds for his motorcade were much larger than they’d ever been,” he says. “That’s when we knew that, if nothing else, Kennedy had firmed up support for himself in the Democratic party.”
That moment, the visual medium vs. audio, changed history. It changed the way politics is practiced. TV images are powerful and sometimes unfair. Nixon performed better in later debates, but the image of him mopping flop sweat is the one that stuck with voters.
Kennedy himself had predicted this new ubiquitous technology’s impact a year earlier in “TV Guide,” as he was clearly thinking through how to approach a changing media landscape.
“Youth may still be a handicap in the eyes of the older politicians,” he wrote, “but it is definitely an asset in creating a television image people like and (most difficult of all) remember.”
But it wasn’t just youth and looks. It was a bad break for Nixon, who was just out of a hospital stay, and what we now think of as good old-fashioned advance work. Kennedy visited that debate set and chose his clothing accordingly, not wanting to blend into a gray background on television.
The younger Kennedy could have used some more of that last night. In addition to the make-up malfunction, Kennedy was in front of a car in disrepair, with its hood up in expectation of a mechanic. I see what they were going for — it was a technical school — but this is the third generation representative of a family somewhat notorious for crashing cars while under the influence, sometimes committing manslaughter in the process.
Speaking of privilege, it is the height of privilege that the very politically experienced members of the Kennedy clan apparently didn’t even think to minimize these associations while their next great hope is taking the stage. Next thing you know, they’ll be naming their dogs “Splash.”
Most of the SOTU response speakers have a cursed night, but not cursed careers (with notable exceptions). They continue to rise, for the most part, if not to the heights the unrealistic hype of this thankless gig suggests. Kennedy did a fine job speaking, but it was a TV and Twitter moment, not a radio one. Tuesday was his Kennedy-Nixon debate moment. It’s a shame for him he was Nixon.