Politics & Media
Nov 07, 2008, 05:45AM

Obama's Advantage: "The Picture of Health"

A televised picture says more than a thousand words. In Presidential politics, it just might get you elected.

The following video was included in this article:

Chronicling the evolution of the modern media, the 1960 campaign for president was a watershed moment in many ways. In the papers and now in living rooms across the nation, the 43-year old senator Kennedy represented the younger, hipper, intellectual generation. He was first candidate to run who hadn’t been born in the previous century. Already a media celebrity thanks to his illustrious family tree, a three-term congressmen and a Pulitzer-prize winning author, Kennedy also had an attractive, stylish wife and two print-ad pretty young children in John Jr. and Caroline. Compared to often-fractious Vice-President Richard Nixon, who shied away from reporters and TV cameras (and seemed more and more to stand for the now stale politics of World War Two), the debonair Kennedy lovingly embraced the increasing visual power of the media spotlight. And much like another young senator who is now president-elect, an enthralled media entourage loved and embraced him right into the White House.

It all started on September 26, 1960 at the WBBM studios in Chicago. For the first time in presidential campaign history, TV cameras were rolling for the debates and people watched in massive numbers. With only three major networks dominating, the novel 1960 debates drew an outlandish percentage of the American viewing populace—according to Neilson’s, Sept 26 had 59.5 percent of all sets and the Oct 13 debate drew 61 percent, the two highest ratings on record for a debate. While it is said that Nixon appeared nervous and shifty when the lens pointed his way, the handsome Kennedy met the camera with a casual coolness. Often ignoring his cue cards, he looked the nation in the eye when he spoke and exuded exactly the kind of bushy-tailed virility that Nixon simply couldn’t muster.

The already tan Kennedy agreed to let stylists do his hair and makeup before his appearance. To create an elegant, telegenic contrast, Kennedy wore a tailored dark-hued suit that seemed to make his face shine. He was also coached how to cross his legs while sitting and to stay physically neutral while he was patiently listening to Nixon’s attacks.

While many things will be written about the 2008 debates, as a viewer it was the youthful Barack Obama’s wise, zen-like calm during the most pointed moments of the debates with John McCain that set him apart from his rival. As was mocked in both the traditional and comic news, McCain’s history of childish anger-management issues seemed clear: when Obama’s even, smooth-talking style got under his skin, we saw McCain sighing audibly, rolling his eyes, muttering unfinished retorts, snarling and clicking his teeth, pounding the podium or angrily pacing back and forth across the stage instead of waiting his turn. In short, though he had far more experience playing this game (like Nixon before him), it was McCain who seemed to lack instruction rather than his upstart counterpart.  

Remembering the 1960 debate, we can see now that Nixon’s fidgety, corpse-like image came from both his refusal to be made-up and a bout of bad luck. Limping from a painful knee injury and stricken with flu-like symptoms that forced him to lose weight, MSNBC writes that Nixon appeared “tense, almost frightened, at turns glowering and occasionally haggard-looking.” Time wrote that in that first pivotal debate, “Nixon looked pale and sweaty…an image that stuck with viewers far longer than his words did.” What’s more, perhaps Nixon’s life-long hostility towards the media couldn’t be hidden when everyone was watching.

“Nixon hated the press,” The New York Times summed up in a 1994 remembrance. The very nature of TV made every move you made and every word you said subject to increased scrutiny. Transparency, as the American people would learn later, would not be one of Nixon’s strong suits. “When television replaced print as the instrument for clouding men's minds, he hated television too. He wanted to cloud men's minds for himself and found it unbearable that press and television were able to interfere with the purity of the process.”

FDR’s radio broadcast fireside chats were fading fast from view. Indeed never before had a visual image been so important in electing a president. “One study concluded that those who heard the debate on the radio thought the contest to be a draw,” CNN wrote about viewer perception of the 1960 debates, “while those who watched the broadcast thought Kennedy the clear winner.”

The fact that Kennedy was suffering from a series of maladies himself—including Addison’s disease, advanced osteoporosis, depression, insomnia, thyroid infections as well as severe intestine and back ailments (he had three fractured vertebra) that put him on a horse’s ration of the day’s best painkillers, uppers and downers—didn’t seem to register with the viewers. A 2002 Times exposé of Kennedy’s medical records reveal that a secretly sickly JFK did a masterful job of concealing his failing health. While the TV cameras showed a smiling, youthful Kennedy standing in direct contrast to the haggard Nixon, Kennedy was truly in serious pain: on antispasmodics for colitis, steroids, demoral, methadone and procaine for back pain, barbiturates for sleep, meprobamate, Ritalin and Librium for anxiety. Indeed, the constant campaigning had worn him down to the point where he needed help to put on his socks and shoes and received constant shots of stimulants and testosterone to keep him in fighting shape. Much like wheelchair-bound FDR did during one the nation’s darkest hours, the affable Kennedy so manipulated the media that he created a lasting image of himself as a virile, strong and resolute leader who wouldn’t stop for a second to acknowledge personal pain.

Other instances of the public image of a candidate’s mental and physical stamina would effect elections long after Kennedy rose to power. As we saw with Tina Fey’s unabashedly scabrous portrayal of Sarah Palin, the power of pop-culture satire can’t be discounted as a factor in forming the American public’s image of the candidate. Though he would be remembered as a supremely self-confident and agile administrator, president Gerald Ford’s image took a beating on the small screen when Chevy Chase and the SNL writing crew (including Minnesota senate candidate Al Franken) began lampooning the stern accidental president by portraying him as a bumbling, prat-fall-prone klutz who couldn’t get through a meeting or a government event without seriously screwing something up. Though the effect on the public psyche is impossible to calculate, Ford’s loss to Carter in 1976 by the slimmest of margins makes one wonder if the widespread digestion of Chase’s image of the president could have subconsciously altered votes. We’ll also never know if Fey’s widely-seen portrayal of Palin as a lightly educated, trigger-happy country bimbo made American voters question McCain’s “senior-moment-prone” judgment, but it definitely could be considered as one of the many factors that made voters overwhelmingly choose the more urbane Obama and Biden, both who have law degrees.

Another interesting image contest took place in the 1980 campaign between Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan. The contrast between the two men again was highlighted during an intense TV debate. Reagan had an immediate advantage being a veteran actor; like Kennedy, he was completely at ease in front of the cameras, channeling the same upbeat charm he used as the former host of Death Valley Days and star of numerous romantic Westerns to liven up his stump speeches. Carter, on the other hand, after surviving a presidency fraught with fuel shortages and failed initiatives, was more cerebral, wordy, overly serious and depressingly realistic about the nations problems. Reagan smiled at the cameras, palling around with the moderators, and displayed his talent for snappy one-liners. (“Are you better off than you were four years ago?”) He was vague but optimistic about what the future would look like under his watch: things were going to get better under him, he preached, and the economy would thrive again, simple as that. When things did perk up by 1983 America voted for him in a landslide in 1984, stealing away the once Democratic South for good. The nation has been feeling the effects ever since.

In 2000 Al Gore would emulate the Carter model—intelligent but not resonant, dour, pasty, humorless, awkward—a nerdy Washington elitist downer who had big ideas but fell flat on the big stage. Like Carter, during tense moments in the debates Gore would loudly sigh in annoyance and roll his eyes in frustration, trying desperately to get his word in. Bush’s patient, chipper, cowboy image, a direct link to Reagan, combined with his “I’m just like you,” charm, hit a nerve with voters—enough to get him eight years in office despite some of the lowest approval ratings in presidential history.

Images of health and mental stability also sunk Carter and then Dukakis after him. While the nation was already quite familiar with Reagan’s all-American horsemanship and frequent outdoorsy hikes, in the summer of 1979, the already slender Carter rekindled a serious love affair with cross-country running. Starting out with quick jaunts around the White House when he could find time, Carter continued to up the length of his runs until he was averaging over 50 miles a week. Even though the stressful presidency and his grueling regimen had started to take a toll on the 55-year-old, (he had lost over 10 pounds, was looking increasingly sallow) he wasn’t satisfied and tried harder and harder to get better times—going from an eight minute mile to under six and a half. He overstepped his body’s bounds one day when he tried to jog to the top of a steep path in Catocin Mountain National Park. Time reported that even though the president was gasping for breath on his way up the mountain, he pushed himself on, telling his running mates, “If I can just make the top, I’ve got it made.” The flippant remark would prove to be a powerful metaphor. “Seconds later,” they reported, “an ashen-faced Carter felt his legs go rubbery and just as he began to fall a secret service agent grabbed him…” The papers would run pictures of the president splayed on the ground, being carted away from the mountain he couldn’t climb. A California-tan Reagan would cheerfully ride his horse right into the White House months later.

During the often-nasty election of 1988 between Dukakis and George H.W. Bush, things took a turn for the worse for the Democrat when a Lee Atwater-led media mob demanded that Dukakis release all his medical records to prove that he had undergone extreme psychiatric treatments. When he became outraged and refused, the public took it as a sign of guilt. The Republicans were delighted by this turn of events; asked whether the Democratic nominee should have to make his medical records public, President Reagan (who was already hiding the early stages of Alzheimer’s) told reporters, smiling: ''Look, I'm not going to pick on an invalid.” That word, invalid, says it all. Unfit. Unsound. Broken. And guess what George Bush did to portray his still vibrant health: he upped his jogging regimen.

Historians will have many years decide just why Obama swept the 2008 election so handily. What hasn’t been discussed is why the Republicans chose to combat a young, athletic Democrat with a candidate who had suffered through years of unspeakable torture in Vietnam, had contracted cancer and would have been the oldest man in history to take the office.

  • Let's be fair: Gore in 2000 was just skewered by the media, way out of proportion, perhaps because he had the reputation of being such a fantastic debater. Bush had a low bar, and so came out okay. Excellent re-telling of the Kennedy/Nixon debates. No wonder Nixon didn't debate in '68 or '72.

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  • McCain tried his best to hide his decaying, swollen image and make it looker better but most of the time it just didn't work. Next to Obama, he didn't only talk about retaining the policies of George W. Bush and replicating the last eight years, he looked like he was going to do all that. His face represented the antithesis of the change Obama and the majority of the American people wanted to bring.

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