The perils of heat in a cool medium

Posted: Jan 26, 2004 12:00 AM

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.

After the Tuesday primary in New Hampshire, where presidential politics is nearly all retail, the campaign will be determined by television, as important as the public rallies may be. The omniscient camera is relentless, and formal style and ideological content conflict. Creativity and consistency do, too.

The message is important, of course. Howard Dean's fall was about a lot more than his rant. The president worked with a powerful advantage the day after Iowa, delivering a State of the Union address that demanded more respectful attention from the television audience after the sometimes clownish excitement of the donkey race in Iowa. The president's speech, not great but good enough, required a greater depth of attention and analysis of the issues simply because of what it was and where it was delivered.

The critics sometimes missed the point, dismissing perfunctory clich? One such was put off by the presidential phrase that "no one can ever doubt the word of America." But clich?r not, it's true, and it followed the president's point that dramatic change of heart (if that is what it turns out to be) by Muammar Qaddafi of Libya followed American success in Iraq: "Nine months of intense negotiations involving the United States and Great Britain succeeded with Libya, while 12 years of diplomacy with Iraq did not." The colonel got the message. That's not platitude, the president was saying, but strategy.

The president's strongest points focused on the fight against terrorism, not so much stirring the blood as encouraging the mind to reflect upon which man can direct that fight best. By comparison, the Democrats in Iowa were the preliminary fighters filling out the card before a championship fight. "Undercard" fighters dream of becoming contenders, eager for their big chance to score a knockout in November. One of them will get that chance. But they, like us, will have to endure a lot more television before we decide which one of them climbs into the ring with the champ.