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Presidential Debates: Perception vs. Substance
September 28, 2004
by Kim

Perception, in politics, is often reality.

Those who listened over the radio to the 1960 Kennedy/Nixon Debate swear that Nixon won. But the 70 million who watched on the new medium of television favored the ice-blue cool of Kennedy over the gray Nixon.

Making an Entrance
It's not true that George W. Bush will don a Vietnam-era flight suit and pilot Air Force One on the way to Thursday's debate at Coral Gables, Florida.

Nor will John F. Kerry helm a swiftboat into Miami harbor.

But the competitor who disdains perception and style does so at his own peril.

1960 Standard
That first modern Presidential debate in 1960 set the tone.

While the exchange offered insight into issues such as "the missile gap," the disputed islands of Quemoy and Matsu in the China Sea, and striking steel workers, the decisive factor was Mr. Nixon's sweaty upper lip and his five o'clock shadow.

Nixon had been feverish. He got to the studio late and looked ill and uncomfortable (he always looked uncomfortable). In contrast, the tanned and relaxed Kennedy could have just stepped off the cover of GQ magazine. The nation, worried about Eisenhower's heart attacks while in office, wanted a leader with youth and vigor.

It also helped that Don Hewitt, the studio producer for the debate, was a Kennedy fan.

Hewitt convinced JFK to wear pancake make-up to soften the harsh glare of the studio klieg lights. During the broadcast, Hewitt instructed the camera operators to frame Kennedy in profile with a wide angle. For Nixon, Hewitt ordered straight-on extreme close-ups -- the equivalent of a mug shot.

Don Hewitt, by the way, perfected his craft as founder and producer of CBS' 60 Minutes. The "villain" of each 60 Minutes segment has always gotten the Nixonian treatment. (Welcome to the world of objective television journalism.)

Details, Details
From then on, every detail of the debate has been negotiated well in advance. For instance, the taller Gerald Ford wanted identical podiums for his debate with Jimmy Carter. Mr. Carter would look short and inferior peering over a too-high lecturn. Thus, the infamous "Belt Buckle Compromise" was hammered out. Both podiums were designed for the sloping face of the lecturn to go no higher than the candidate's belt buckle.

Size didn't matter in that 1976 encounter.

Mr. Ford answered a question about Communism by declaring: "There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe."

That was news to people in Kansas City and Peoria, not to mention Berlin, Warsaw and Prague. Mr. Ford never fully recovered and lost in November.

The Actor's Studio
Four years later, however, Mr. Carter fell victim to a skilled debater, Ronald Reagan. Asked prior to the debate if he felt nervous about appearing on stage with an incumbent President, Mr. Reagan said: "Not at all. Heck, I've been on the same stage with John Wayne!"

When Carter started accusing Reagan of plans to dismantle federal health care, Reagan disarmed him with: "There you go again."

He sealed the deal by looking into the camera and asking the audience: "Are you better off today than you were four years ago?"

That debate performance ushered in a landslide for the Gipper.

One for the Ages
Four years later, however, Reagan stumbled in his first debate with challenger Walter Mondale. People began to wonder if the septuagenarian was up to the task. He reassured the nation, however, in the second debate when asked about his advancing age: "I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent's youth and lack of experience," he quipped.

Game. Set. Match.

The Duke in '88
Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis was harshly painted by Republicans as a wishy-washy, soft-on-crime, card-carrying member of the ACLU. Bernard Shaw gave him an opening to refute the stolid bureaucratic image and show some passion. Shaw asked the hypothetical question if he would support capital punishment in a case where his wife, Kitty, was raped and murdered.

Mr. Dukakis' mechanical reply of "no" was the death penalty for the Dukakis campaign. (It probably also convinced Kitty to sleep with a Bowie knife under her pillow for the rest of her days.)

Have You Got the Time?
In 1992, President George Herbert Walker Bush forgot the lessons of Richard Nixon. During the debate with Bill Clinton and H. Ross "Giant Sucking Sound" Perot, the President seemed bored and distant. He even glanced at his watch at one point, looking as if he had a more pressing engagement, a game of horseshoes with Babs, perhaps.

The well-versed, telegenic and engaging Clinton seized the moment and the election.

The 1960 perception lessons rang true again in 1996.

Clinton waltzed around a dour Bob Dole in a town-hall format. The setting was perfect for the larger-than-life President and displayed the generational divide between the two candidates. Clinton's performance was pure Oprah while Dole seethed and sputtered in the role of Ed Sullivan trying to keep up with Elvis.

Bush v. Gore
Al Gore, in 2000, tried to emulate the cool JFK. He knew about pancake make-up, power ties and earth tones. But his make-up artist must have gotten his training at IHOP. Gore resembled Herman Munster not the Prince of Camelot.

Bush's "aw shucks" demeanor was the perfect foil to Gore after eight years of "Slick Willie."

Bush v. Kerry
What will happen this time?

After 9/11, recession, corporate scandals, wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and budget deficits, one would hope that substance would prevail over perception.

But if history is any guide, that's debatable.

Thanks.