PAGING MARSHALL McCLUHAN: Channeling the author of the ’60s sociological classic, The Medium Is The Message, Suzanne Fields notes that:
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 dictates of television also helps to explain Charles Paul Fruend’s theory (see below) about the increasing importance of candidates to tell a good story.
Incidentally, even though he died in 1980, back in early 2002, shortly before this blog went live, we interviewed Dr. McLuhan ourselves, and came away fascinated by his thoughts on not just television–but Weblogs as well.