Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Shaken, Not Stirred

Author's note: In March 1956, Ian Fleming published "Diamonds Are Forever," in which James Bond's preference for a martini that was "shaken, not stirred" became known.
In the 1950s, television was not new. It had been developed decades earlier, but it didn't play its first major role in American politics until the mid–1950s.

Broadcasting was still rather embryonic in 1956, when Dwight Eisenhower ran for a second term as president. TV networks didn't fully appreciate the subtleties of camera angles, and politicians hadn't made endless studies about what appeals visually to TV viewers. That was still in the future.

As TV ownership expanded in the 1950s, so did its potential for political influence. But it wasn't until the turbulence of the 1960s that broadcast journalism really began to mature.

The week before the Republicans met in San Francisco to re–nominate Eisenhower, the Democrats met in Chicago to re–nominate the man who lost to Eisenhower in 1952 — Adlai Stevenson.

Broadcasting was still new, as I say. Its practitioners were still learning, but the Stevenson campaign had the right idea. Drama — a compelling story — would attract attention, which would, in turn, attract viewers (and, it was further hoped, those viewers would be voters in November).

The fault lay not with the objective but with the execution.

In modern times, a convention has been an opportunity for a political party to tell the story of its nominee–to–be, but in 1956, both presidential nominees were known quantities.

There was little excitement at either party's convention in August 1956; in part to shake things up, Stevenson announced that he was throwing open the choice of his running mate to the delegates — even though he loudly lamented the marketing of political candidates.
Bartlet: Can I tell you what's messed up about James Bond?

Charlie: Nothing.

Bartlet: Shaken, not stirred, will get you cold water with a dash of gin and dry vermouth. The reason you stir it with a special spoon is so not to chip the ice. James is ordering a weak martini and being snooty about it.

The West Wing

In the eyes of history, that convention is remembered more for launching the national political career of the man who lost the vice presidential nomination, John F. Kennedy, than the man who won it, Estes Kefauver.

Stevenson had the right marketing concept, but he didn't use the right approach. He shook things up. He didn't stir the voters.

In 1956 — and, in fact, until relatively recently — the business of actually nominating running mates occurred on the final scheduled nights of conventions, just before the nominees made their acceptance speeches.

But, on Aug. 16, 1956, Stevenson turned what had been largely a routine matter in the past into an uncontrolled free–for–all that took three ballots to resolve — and his acceptance speech was pushed out of primetime, moving the conclusion of convention business into the early hours of the following day. Viewership for the acceptance speech was, as you might expect, below expectations.

Eisenhower might have won that election, anyway. He had some health issues, but he was a popular president.

Stevenson, as I say, had the right idea, but the execution was flawed. His convention decision didn't help his cause — and that alone was a violation of the admonition to do no harm.

Could the ultimate outcome have been better for Stevenson? Absolutely. The Democrats received less than 42% of the popular vote and carried only seven states. In fact, the Democrats lost Stevenson's and Kefauver's home states.

Could the outcome have been worse? It's hard to see how.

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