Some hide from new technology, while others worship it as their newfound God. President Lyndon B. Johnson was a retail politician who preferred to practice the art of political seduction through one on one interactions and backroom machinations. Television, with its ability to broadcast a message to the masses and establish a public “brand,” wasn’t for Johnson, but he wasn’t merely indifferent to television and the media; he was hostile toward their incursion into the political process, telling a CBS producer some time after he left office in 1968, “All politics has changed because of you [the media]. You’ve broken all the machines and ties between us in Congress and the city machines. You’ve given us a new kind of people. Teddy [Kennedy], [John] Tunney. They’re your creatures, your puppets.”
Though Johnson lashed out at Teddy Kennedy as a creation of the media, he may have still been holding onto a grudge against the Massachusetts’ Senator’s late brother and Johnson’s running mate, predecessor, and one-time rival, President John F. Kennedy. After a brief and unsuccessful campaign for the nomination at the 1956 Democratic convention, Johnson had felt that it was his turn in 1960 but abstained from officially entering the primaries.
According to The Passage Of Power, by Robert Caro, Johnson believed that voters would admire his decision to continue his important work as Senate Majority Leader and that his allies in Congress could lend him enough support to secure the nomination. But while Johnson regarded then-Senator John F. Kennedy as an insubstantial opponent due to his unremarkable legislative record and his health-related absenteeism in the Senate, he underestimated the growing power of the primaries and Kennedy’s polished public image as a young and telegenic family man. Kennedy became a media darling as he introduced himself to primary state voters in person and by way of TV ads and Johnson, hesitantly, became his Vice President after Kennedy won the nomination on the first ballot at the convention.
Add all that to the media’s role in vividly broadcasting the horrors of war as they were playing out in Vietnam during his Presidency (spurring media criticism that he was particularly sensitive to) and it’s easy to see why Johnson was bitter. But his point, that the spotlight had made likeability a prerequisite for successfully seeking elected office while forcing the messy inner workings of Congress out of the shadows — and away from a place where the ground was fertile for compromise and action — is worth consideration.
In the more than 45 years since Johnson made those remarks, the level of rancor and stagnation in Congress has increased greatly and the sight of a sitting president going on television to read mean tweets in an effort to enhance his likability has become the norm. But while the way leaders communicate and govern has been impacted by the media’s awesome bloom in scope and significance, is this (inevitable and continuing) evolution a bad thing?
With the help of former MTV News reporter Tabitha Soren, Between Two Ferns producer and Comedy Bang Bang host Scott Aukerman, and University of Arkansas assistant professor of communications Ryan Neville-Shepard, we decided to examine the rise of television and the media’s role in presidential politics (specifically over the last 25 years) to shed some light on that question.