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Since the 1950s, no U.S. political candidate has been able to ignore the pervasive influence of television. In 1952, vice-presidential candidate Richard Nixon took to the airwaves to defend himself against corruption charges in his famous "Checkers" speech. The speech -- in which he denied receiving unethical gifts, except for a cocker spaniel named Checkers given to his children -- is widely credited with keeping him on Dwight Eisenhower's ticket.
That year, Eisenhower became the first presidential candidate to make and air political ads. His opponent, Adlai Stevenson, refused to follow suit and lost the election. Eisenhower later became the first president to permit a televised press conference.
Nixon, who so cleverly used the medium to make an emotional appeal to the public in 1952, came off poorly eight years later, when he ran for president against a young New Englander, John F. Kennedy. Kennedy, with his fresh, handsome face, Boston Irish accent and optimistic outlook, won many voters before he opened his mouth in their "debate," while Nixon's labored refutations of Kennedy's points went unnoticed by viewers turned off by his 5 o'clock shadow and sweaty forehead.
Today's politicians are already savvy in their taped appearances before sympathetic crowds and their staffs of TV strategists. They now find themselves obliged to reach beyond the news programs and retune their personalities for a younger audience, one that gets its news from comedians (like Jon Stewart) and celebrities. Visuals, too, are more important than ever, with HDTV sets likely to reveal the slightest miscue. There is no sign that television is likely to lose its predominance as a method for disseminating political messages.