Harvey H. Jackson: Looking back on first debate
Oct 17, 2012 | 2277 views |  0 comments | 6 6 recommendations | email to a friend | print
It’s getting to be that you can’t swing a cat without hitting a debate — or a debater (which might not be a bad idea, were it not for the pain it might cause the cat).

Who thought it would come to this?

Not me.

When it all started, back in September 1960, I did not pay much attention.

My senior year in high school had just begun, and though I was already a bit of a political junkie, my main concern at that time was the football season that was under way and the girl I was courting — neither of which were off to a good start.

Out at my Daddy’s “Green House” — the green mini-barn that was the precursor to his future, famous “ Poutin’ House” — you could feel the first tremors of the seismic shift that would take place during the decade to come, civil rights and such. But there was not much talk about the coming candidate confrontation.

Maybe it was because it was to be televised. TVs were relatively new to our area and not in every household. Some in Daddy’s group took pride in not having one.

Or maybe it was because the whole thing slipped up on them.

It seemed as if one day a magazine did a piece on the Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858 and suggested it might be nice to have something like that in 1960, and the next thing any of us knew, we were having one.

Whoop, whoop.

Or maybe it was because there was a general lack of enthusiasm for either candidate. Richard Nixon was in the wrong party. In 1960, in my little south Alabama town, Republicans were rare and generally considered “odd” — as evidenced by one of the few who openly declared her allegiance to the GOP. My cousin Mary, who was already showing the eccentricities that in time would have her living as a semi-recluse with cats named after Confederate generals, would tell anyone who would listen that she was not a Democrat. Mary had more money than God, to whom she left close to $1 million when she died.

“Better than leaving it to a Republican,” Daddy said.

“Or to the cats,” Mama added.

As for Kennedy, he talked funny and was a Catholic, which Green House regulars claimed did not matter, but I could see that to some of them, it did.

It didn’t to Daddy. A religious libertarian, the only time I ever saw him taken aback, theologically speaking, was when one of his cronies confessed an inclination toward agnosticism. As far as Daddy was concerned, you could believe whatever you wanted to believe so long as you didn’t expect or insist that he believe it with you. Nevertheless, he thought you ought to believe something. (I can only imagine the delight he would have taken in this year’s crop of candidates — a Mormon, two Catholics and a guy that half of the Republicans in Alabama think is a Muslim.)

Since Daddy was a yellow-dog Democrat from the get-go, he early and openly came out for JFK. This may have been the point where he and the local Catholic priest became friends and, in time, drinking buddies.

Daddy had some JFK signs and a few bumper stickers, though I think that rather than stick, they attached to the bumpers with wires — memory fails, but the point is that he had visible acknowledgements of his loyalty to the party under whose banner he had been elected circuit clerk. He offered signs and stickers to his courthouse cronies who either declined or, if they took one, did not display it.

So Kennedy and Nixon debated. And today, analysts and pundits look back on it as the point at which JFK won the election.

Maybe so, but I missed it. It was a Monday night, and I must have had something better to do.

So did Daddy and his friends. The debate passed with little notice. In a few weeks, the real campaign got going and Alabama, as only Alabama can, went its own way.

Kennedy carried the state, but Harry Byrd, running as a states’-rights independent, got six of the state’s 11 electoral votes. Nixon got nothing. It was a mess. Look it up. It gets even better, or worse.

As the Green House gang tried to make sense of the election, the debate was never mentioned. It apparently did not make a ripple and no minds were changed.

However, the day after the returns were in, Daddy got lots of calls from people who wanted Kennedy signs and stickers.

No matter who won the debate, those folks wanted to be on the winning side, once that side won.

Harvey H. (“Hardy”) Jackson is Eminent Scholar in History at Jacksonville State University and a columnist and editorial writer for The Star. Email: hjackson@jsu.edu.
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