Suzanne Fields

Television is a "cool" medium, and politicians sometimes learn the hard way that it's unkind to overwrought emotions. The small screen distorts big passions, whether in a narrative drama or a stump speech. Great playwrights long ago learned that pity and fear are best evoked on a stage with an audience. Exuberant stump speeches can galvanize the troops with passionate persuasion, but such rhetoric "resonates" through a glass (screen) darkly.

Those who watched Howard Dean's "concession" speech on caucus night in Iowa nearly all agreed with Jay Leno's verdict that the governor looked like "Mr. Rogers with Rabies." Mara Liasson, the Fox News commentator who was in the room in Des Moines, was one observer who disagreed. She thought he was acting like a man refusing to accept defeat, rallying his disappointed troops, urging them on to New Hampshire.

Interpretations of candidate television performances have been grist for morning-after conversations in the five decades since the video camera became the dominating factor in presidential campaigns. This was first and famously discovered after the first Nixon-Kennedy debate in 1960, when nearly everyone who listened to the radio broadcast thought Richard Nixon had won: He had mastered the material and presented his views firmly, concisely, authoritatively. But John F. Kennedy, with big hair and no five-o'-clock shadow, had movie-star looks. The eye of the beholder trumped the ear of the listener.

Dwight D. Eisenhower was the first candidate, in 1952, to recognize the importance of the remorseless eye of the camera. He hired Robert Montgomery, the movie and television star, to help cast a television personality for him. Ike was ridiculed for it at the time, but he was prescient before he was president. He served two popular terms.

The problem today is more complex. Candidates are subject to how they look and sound in candid interviews and debates, rehearsed speeches and spontaneous exhortations to the troops, and all become clips for television, played over and over. They can't change their manner with the medium. The candidate becomes a portrait by Picasso, depicted in different shapes and angles for a variety of viewers.

Nothing that was said or written about the hapless Michael Dukakis in 1988 was as memorable as the image of the candidate in a tank, his head obscured by a helmet that looked three sizes too big, bobbing helplessly on a bumpy ride that reduced his character to caricature. It was as though he had drawn himself in a cartoon. George W.'s twisted syntax in his debates with Al Gore in 2000, on the other hand, humanized him, and the comparison to the pedantic Al Gore was all to his good. Image control is elusive.


Suzanne Fields

Suzanne Fields is currently working on a book that will revisit John Milton's 'Paradise Lost.'

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