Ever since the coolly charismatic John F. Kennedy defeated sweaty-lipped Richard Nixon in the first televised presidential debates -- and then went on to beat him in the election of 1960 -- nearly everyone has accepted the notion that TV is the most important element in any presidential campaign. Whoever comes across best on television, supposedly, will swoosh to victory at the polls. That's assuming the voting machines work, among other variables.
But what happens when neither candidate comes across well on television? Maybe TV cancels itself out as The Great Decider, and maybe substance surpasses style, proving that television can convey the former as well as the latter. Then again, much of the role that television has been playing in politics is being usurped by the ever-ravenous Internet.
Looking back through the past 40 years or so, you'd think the parties sometimes went looking for the least sizzly candidates they could find. A Dan Quayle or a John Edwards may occasionally get on a ticket by virtue of telegenic qualities alone, but there's been no population explosion of pretty boys in the candidate ranks.
Neither presidential candidate has made particularly effective use of television this year. When Bill Clinton bounced out of his hospital bed and briefly joined the fray last week, it was a reminder of what the real thing looks like. Everybody else grew two inches shorter. Clinton and Ronald Reagan, two great giants of the post-Kennedy age where using television is concerned, certainly have no obvious rivals these days.
George W. Bush, the recumbent incumbent, is about as exciting on TV as a sock puppet -- but his appearances are not without a compelling sort of suspense. He can induce tension in viewers who fear he may make, on camera, some grotesque gaffe that will embarrass the nation, and there's always nervous concern about whether the prompting devices will break down and leave him speechless in more ways than one.
Bush has achieved something unique in TV personas, managing on occasion to come across as arrogant and terrified at the same time. In his eyes one can see fear when he struggles -- often vainly -- for an apt word or phrase or just a little burst of coherence. And yet he's also possessed of an almost Napoleonic pomposity when performing presidential duties, such as thrusting out his chest and strutting up to a podium. He tried on different personalities in the presidential debates, sometimes attempting gravitas, sometimes speaking down to the audience as if it consisted entirely of third-graders, and then in the last debate turning into Laughing Boy, finding his opponent's remarks to be so darn funny he just couldn't contain himself.
The debates themselves choked in their own red tape, too rigidly rigged with rules and regulations. Now there's some question whether they even had much influence. Kerry won all the debates, both in terms of style and content, and he experienced his appropriate upticks in the polls. But here we are down to the wire and the race is the proverbial neck-and-neck one, as Tim Russert made clear -- sort of -- with what seemed like thousands of numbers from hundreds of polls on yesterday's edition of NBC's "Meet the Press."
Russert maintains his love of politics as a game and seemed all juiced and jazzed and raring to play. But this isn't that kind of election, is it? It is a 9/11-aftershock election. The long twin shadows still cast their pall. The "war against terrorism" seems at times so unwinnable -- as Bush inadvertently blurted out one day -- that you wonder why either candidate really wants to be elected president.
As for Bush, his constituency obviously doesn't care about his prowess on the pulpit, or his minimal abilities as public speaker and fireside chatterer. Either they don't care that he can look foolish on TV, or else they think he looks just fine. They don't consider him ludicrous even when he is fumbling around with a question at one of his shockingly infrequent press conferences, or landing on the deck of an aircraft carrier in some mad modern version of a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta.
So whom do the Democrats nominate to go up against Bush, this man who all but turns blank under the allegedly revealing rays of a television camera? John Kerry, a man with less channelable charisma than Wolf Blitzer. Something is wrong when, the minute a candidate is chosen as his party's nominee, he is shunted off to some mysterious laboratory in a valiant if vain effort to make him less stiff (the one word that always comes up when people describe Kerry) and spooky, to make him somehow camera-worthy in time for the convention.
The number of wrongheaded decisions from the Kerry imagemakers would appear to be enormous, including the photos that showed this oh-so-serious man of the people, this regular guy who spoke repeatedly of his devotion to the middle class, merrily wind-surfing in the waters off Nantucket, or Martha's Vineyard, or some other place where Mr. and Mrs. America never go, which is part of what makes the rich people feel so safe and comfy there. He looked nearly as preposterous on a hunting trip that looked more like a GQ fashion shoot.
Ever since Kerry started looming large in the public eye, some of us have tried to figure out which fictional TV or movie character he reminds us of. His dreary professorial nature suggests a rather obscure image only a few movie buffs could recognize: the mad scientist who continues living even though his head is severed in 1985's "Re-Animator." Kerry would have to be animated before he could be re-animated, however.
His long face, subject of much gibing, is compared to that of the Frankenstein monster in "This Land," the very funny satirical cartoon (which takes swipes at both candidates) playing on the Internet and some satellite channels. On "Saturday Night Live" this past weekend, he was compared to the sad-faced nocturnal creature of the "Scream" movies.
Pollster John Zogby includes what he calls a "Wizard of Oz" question in his polls about presidential preferences. He asks people if they would rather have a president with a big heart and no brains or a big brain and no heart. In 2000, the two values tied. But this year, "brain" won by a substantial margin. That, one would assume, bodes well for Kerry. The TV images do not.
If only Kerry had been able to summon more passion for the political statements he's made on TV and the political positions he has taken. It's a sad deficiency from which both candidates suffer. The stakes are potentially cataclysmic in this election, whether one sees it as about the war on terror or the wobbling economy, and yet when the candidates put forth their "ideas," they tended to do so with namby-pamby diffidence. In recent days, Kerry has been speaking with more fervor and clarity, but he doesn't seem to have broken through as a vividly delineated "television personality."
Whatever happens on Election Day, we can't really blame television. Not this time. The fault is in our stars, dear Brutus -- not the glass screen through which we see them.