Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Right on Time -- Nixon's Sokolniki Cover

Another contemporary account of the Kitchen Debate worth revisiting is the Time magazine cover story of August 3, 1959. Nixon had appeared on Time's cover previously -- and was to reappear there many times thereafter in the sixties and seventies -- his final appearance did not come until 1994. Except on the occasion of his presidential electoral victories in 1968 and 1972, the hard-charging Vice President was probably never treated better by the Time editors as in this paean to his foreign policy savvy and debating prowess. This type of publicity could not have been better timed for a presidential contender in the year preceding a national election. By September, Nixon had surged into the lead in the presidential polls over his Democratic rivals, including John F. Kennedy.

But this positive PR in what was then the world's most influential news magazine came with its share of ironies. As Bill Safire wrote in his memoir, Before the Fall, "When the story of the kitchen conference was reported in the States, accompanied by the still pictures showing Nixon dominant, the impression was created that Nixon 'won.' Later, when the television tape of the color-studio debate was played -- the first debate, which Nixon really 'lost'-- the impression did not change. People viewed the TV debate with the mental set that the American Vice President 'stood up to the Russians' and the sight of him kowtowing did not cause them to waiver. That meant that the writing press would remain important in the coming Age of Television, influencing viewers' opinions of what they saw. Something to remember. Something that Nixon never agreed with either. 'What's on the tube is what counts,' he would say. 'I've never been able to get anybody in my press operation who understood the power of television.'"

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