This packet is the second in a series about politics and mass media.
Who is the ideal President of the United States? What are some positive traits of the “ideal” presidential candidate? How does image affect the popularity of a presidential candidate? This packet explores answers to these questions.
We haven’t had an ugly president of the United States for at least 50 years (and here I’m speaking only of physical appearance, not mental, emotional, intellectual or moral ugliness). That’s an unintended result of our media — first photography, and then, of course film and television.
It’s a commonly-asked question whether Abraham Lincoln could be elected president today, and the honest answer would, of course, have to be “no.” Lincoln’s appearance would not come across well on TV, and reportedly, even his voice (described as shrill) wasn’t exactly “presidential.”
For good or for ill, we’ve had our share of ugly presidents — all pre-television. Martin Van Buren, with his unkempt hair and outrageous sideburns, was downright ugly.
I hasten to point out what we all know — that a person’s physical appearance has nothing at all to do with his or her abilities, intelligence, people skills, kindness, or presidential performance. That being said, it’s also true that Zachary Taylor, Chester Arthur, and Grover Cleveland didn’t win any tall, dark, handsome contests in their lifetimes.
It wasn’t until William McKinley, president from 1897-1901, that chief executives were actually filmed (with sound), and with the possible exception of 300+ pound William Howard Taft and partially paralyzed (and concealed) Franklin Roosevelt, we’ve had presidents whose appearance was pleasing to the American electorate.
John F. Kennedy ushered in the period of presidents who actually looked good on TV. In fact, it was his appearance on the tube which made a big difference in his debates with opponent Richard M. Nixon. Voters who heard the debates only on radio thought that Nixon won; those who watched on TV said that Kennedy had. That was a real turning point in presidential politics — how a person looked literally determined the winner of the debate (and some say the election).
Ronald Reagan, of course, is the patron saint not only of Republicans today, but also of Presidential candidates who want and need to look good on television. Even his detractors admit that Reagan epitomized the victory of style over substance; the tall, well-spoken and polished former movie star was certainly a handsome man.
Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, and George Bush all fit that same mold — they LOOK Presidential.
Much has been said already (and a good deal more will be said in the future) about our necessarily-changing perceptions of who appears presidential, what with the Democratic nominee either a woman or a black man. And while it may be true that the traditional “white male only” rule appears that it will be broken this year, it’s also true that both Democratic contenders (as well as John McCain on the Republican side) look good, speak well, and are telegenic.
The media dominates our lives and perceptions. We already knew that, but sometimes the depth and variety of ways the media shapes our expectations come as a surprise. Could an ugly person be elected today? A fat one? A short one? A handicapped one? A stuttering one? Blind one? Bald one?
It’s that “double-edged sword” of the media raising its head again. Now that the American public can see and hear the candidates (generally a good thing, right?), we seem to have narrowed potential Presidents down to those people who look and sound good (which is not necessarily ideal). The very medium which expands our view of candidates arbitrarily limits the field.
In our private lives, we try not to judge people by their appearance. Hopefully, our politics and media will come around to that enlightened way of thinking someday soon.
Bill Walsh is a Billerica resident and regular contributor to the Billerica Minute Minuteman.
Source: Billerica Minute Minuteman
June 20: The off-the-rack outfit Michelle Obama wore on ABCs "The View" earlier this week is flying off the shelves. TODAY's Meredith Vieira talks to Donna Ricco, the designer of the dress.
Who is the ideal President of the United States?
What are some positive traits of the “ideal” presidential candidate?
According to an article in American Behavioral Scientist, Judith S. Trent et.all found that Americans in 2001 desired a President who was:
Think about who ran for President in 2008.
· Have any of our ideal traits changed?
· Have these changes been influenced by the media at all?
Think about how American political leaders are depicted on your local and national televised news.
One source of debate regarding television’s coverage of politics is how much information a politician should give. If the politician provides a lengthy explanation of his or her opinions or strategies on a political matter, that person is accused of being too wordy and boring. If the politician gives a brief answer, he or she is accused of providing only a sound bite. A sound bite is usually only a sentence or two at the most. Sometimes, it’s only a phrase, such as “Read my lips: No new taxes.” (This phrase was used by the elder President Bush in his successful 1988 political campaign.) Unfortunately, television news reports often focus on sound bites, so many politicians provide little more than that, hoping to get news coverage.
· What would happen if television channels showed all of politicians’ speeches?
· Why do you think sound bites are so commonly used on television?
Nobody is forced to enter politics. Those who do so, do so willingly. Yet it has been said that many qualified individuals leave political office because of the tremendous degree of public scrutiny. Other qualified individuals refuse to run for office altogether because of this scrutiny. Most Americans believe that voters in a democracy are entitled to know important facts about the lives of their political leaders. The question is, what is an important fact?
Source: American Behavioral Scientist