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When it comes to effectiveness and brevity, few presentations can compare with one that was given in Washington, D.C., shortly after the 1960 election. It was so effective that it changed the course of history and it was so brief that it consisted of one single word. It all started with John F. Kennedy, the Democratic Party’s candidate, winning the Presidency, despite the fact that Richard Nixon, the Republican candidate, had received more votes. And just a word of clarification here, it has become conventional wisdom in some circles that Nixon did NOT really get more votes, Kennedy did, 108,574 more to be exact, or less than two tenths of one percent of the 68 million that were cast. But, Kennedy’s total includes included 318,303 ballots from Alabama, and over half of those people actually voted for Harry Flood Byrd, not JFK. So, Nixon really did receive more votes, and for that reason millions of people insisted that he actually won. But that was like saying that the Yankees actually won the World Series that same year, because they outscored Pittsburgh, 55-27. It’s absolutely true that they did, but it’s also completely irrelevant because the definition of victory is winning more games than your opponent, not scoring more total points. The same is true for a Presidential election. The definition of victory is winning the most states, NOT receiving the most votes. An election is a little more complex than the World Series because the states are weighted, so a win in California (with 30 million people) is more valuable than a win in North Dakota (which has less than one million). But then some people have argued World Series games should be weighted so that winning in your opponent’s stadium counts for more than winning at home. However, none of that changes the essential fact that in both cases what counts is the number of contests that you win, not the total number of points or votes that you put on the board. Nevertheless, Nixon’s people wanted to demand a recount. But, to his everlasting credit, in my opinion, he refused to do so, because he thought it would set a bad precedent. Now, would our
system be better if the rules were changed so that the winner was determined by the total number of ballots received? After all, if Al Gore could have taken the extra votes that he received in California, where he won by a lot, and applied them to places like Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Georgia and Idaho, where he lost by a little, he would have been President. But, if the 2003 New York Yankees could have taken excess runs from games that they won and applied them to games that they lost, they would have been undefeated, instead of losing 61 games, and they would not have lost the World Series, because they outscored the Marlins, 21 to 17. So wouldn’t elections and baseball be fairer if Gore’s excess votes had been applied to Florida, thereby giving him that state and the Presidency, and the Yankees’ excess runs had been applied to the last game of the 2003 Series, thereby giving them the title? Well, it’s already that way with football. Excess points that are scored in the first quarter of the Super Bowl are applied to a team’s shortfall in the fourth quarter where, in many cases, those points have constituted the margin of victory. Same is true of golf. They count total strokes for the tournament, not the number of holes that you win. But as to which system is fairer, well, that usually depends on who lost, by how much, and which scoring method would have changed the outcome. However, the point is that Kennedy had been elected by a minority of the voters. Furthermore, there were the usual accusations of fraud, but there were more of them and they were made with more than the usual intensity, because Kennedy’s father was very rich, not to mention very influential, and because Kennedy himself was the product of a big city Democratic political machine. To his credit, in my opinion, he refused to complain about the allegations. In fact, he made light of the whole business by saying that his father had told him that he didn’t mind buying just enough votes to win, but he didn’t want to pay for a landslide. And incidentally, at least with regard to Chicago (Mayor Daley’s machine) and Texas (the home state of Lyndon Johnson, Kennedy’s VP), the charges of fraud were later proved true, beyond anything that resembles a reasonable doubt. But that’s another story. What’s relevant for our purposes is that you had a young President, who was elected by a minority of the voters, and he was from the Democratic Party, which at that time was widely perceived to lack the necessary resolve for dealing with the Soviet Union. In fact, that belief, that the Democrats lacked resolve, is generally thought to be part of the reason why Kruschev subsequently agreed to put nuclear missiles in Cuba, 90 miles from the U.S. So under the circumstances, and remember, this was before the Cuban missile crisis, some people in Kennedy’s administration thought they ought to demonstrate their determination to the Soviets by sending a few thousand Marines to Havana to overthrow Castro, because, after all, he had overthrown the previous government. The first step in that
process was a briefing by David Shoup, the Commandant of the Marine Corps. After everyone was seated, he pulled back a curtain to reveal a gigantic map of the United States, but he said nothing. He waited a moment and then lowered a clear sheet of plastic over the map on which there was the red outline of Cuba, and many people gasped, because it was huge, about the distance from New York to Chicago. But Shoup still said nothing. Finally, he lowered a third clear plastic sheet on which there was a tiny irregular shape, which he carefully positioned over the island of Manhattan, so that it covered about half of the area of Central Park, and he still said nothing. After a few seconds, somebody asked him what the red shape was, at which point he said the first, last and only word of his presentation, “Tarawa”, and everybody recognized the name instantly, because almost two decades years earlier, on the 20th of November, in 1943, during WWII, when Shoup was a Colonel, he had led an invasion force of 35,000 Americans, 4 times bigger than the one envisioned for Cuba, onto an island that was smaller than the parking lot at the Pentagon, instead of 800 miles long. He had faced 5,000 Japanese, instead of 10 million Cubans. And after an unspeakable slaughter, during which one thousand Americans were killed, they finally took the island, largely because all but 17 out of the 5,000 Japanese defenders had been wiped out, and there was literally nobody left for the Marines to fight against. So his presentation consisted of three images. It took two minutes, and he spoke one word. But it was enough to permanently foreclose any discussion of an American invasion of Cuba, and what made it work was the visual impact of the relative sizes. However, it’s possible to create a similarly powerful impact with words alone, by merely reciting some things that ARE common knowledge, but are NOT usually considered together. We’ll look at an example of that next.
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