Saturday, July 05, 2008

"Producing" a President

July 5, 2008, 11:45 a.m.

Selling Presidential Candidates as Feature Film Characters

A movie critic, Stephen Hunter, writing in this morning's New York Times has reminded me of some political truths I once knew but had permitted to slip below my radar in my past week's blog entries about Senator Obama's "self-rebranding." Stephen Hunter, "Leading Men: Barack Obama and John McCain Want the Biggest Role in Politics, Yet Each Candidate Has Very Different Star Qualities to Offer," The Washington Post, July 6, 2008, p. M1. [For links to eight prior blog entries see Nicholas Johnson, "Obama's Telephone Switch," July 3, 2008, under "Related."]

Read Hunter's piecer. It's entertaining. But whether Hunter intended or not, it also contains some powerful political truths.

Composer, musician and Hollywood TV writer Mason Williams once closed a song, "This is not a true tale, but who needs truth if it's dull?"

We may need the truth, but we certainly don't seek it out. We prefer a good story; one that's not dull. And there are plenty of advertising agencies, political campaign consultants, Hollywood script writers, and politicians more than happy to tell them to us.

Jack Nicholson's "Nathan R. Jessep" put it a little more forcefully in "A Few Good Men": "You can't handle the truth!" [from 0:00-0:20]

Frankly, I think we could handle the political truth, but it's seldom that any of our candidates will trust us with it -- and few voters have ever complained.

Increasingly, we live "mediated" lives: talking on cell phones, listening to iPods, watching audio-visual material on everything from the screens in movie theaters, to our TV sets, to computer screens, to hand-held devices. We are more interested in, and motivated to buy, the advertiser's dream than the product to which it is linked. Having balanced the two competing entertainment sites as equivalent, we conclude we'd rather visit Disneyland than Yosemite National Park.

"Sell the sizzle, not the steak," was the sales advice once offered restaurateurs. So long as we continue to buy the sizzle and ignore the steak (remember "Where's the beef?") that's what we'll be offered, and what we'll get.

So Hunter's insight should not come to us as a surprise. If we are influenced to buy our clothes, and style our hair, on the basis of movie stars' choices, and if we confuse the characters in TV and film with the actors who play them (sending baby gifts to studios when a soap opera character "has a baby"), why would we not have film characters in mind when picking our presidents?

Don't you think Martin Sheen's "'Jed' Bartlett" (from "West Wing") would have run as well as Senators Obama and McCain this fall, had he chosen to run? (I recall "'Jed' Bartlett" coming to Iowa City to endorse, and speak for, Vice President Gore in 2000.)

I recall a politico once telling me that the deal makers in his party were trying to find a candidate who looked like Hal Holbrook in the 1970-71 TV series, "The Senator."

As Hunter writes,

You might consider it [the general election campaign] a lobbying effort not to win an election but to get a starring role in "The Next Four Years." And the star thing that you will contemplate is contrived of two elements: image, as polished and packaged by PR and advertising professionals, but also a kind of truth the camera yields not because of the advisers, but in spite of them, sometimes in counterpoint to the official image. Trying to keep track of what the camera reveals -- both on purpose and by accident -- is like looking at audition clips back in the old days with a bunch of studio scouts, like the one who (possibly apocryphally) concluded about Fred Astaire, "Can't sing. Can't act. Balding. Can dance a little." . . .

Obama's at the clutch of a star's career crisis. He's had his breakthrough. He needs another starring movie to consolidate. Yet the scrutiny will be upgraded, the audience is larger, and rumors are starting to dog him as they do all stars. So it remains to be seen who will get the big role in "The Next Four Years" -- and maybe the sequel "The Next Next Four Years."

You casting agents out there have to make a decision.
There's another famous journalism anecdote Lesley Stahl tells (and for which Jay Rosen has provided some of the best analysis) regarding the comparative impact of words and image. She had produced a "lengthy" (for CBS' evening news pieces) story about President Ronald Reagan's use of video imagery to, often, leave misleading impressions. She thought it was a tough piece, and was concerned about a potential negative reaction from the White House staff.

But that isn’t what happened, she says. When the piece aired, Darman called from the White House. “Way to go, kiddo,” he said to Stahl. “What a great piece. We loved it.” Stahl replied, “Didn’t you hear what I said [in the broadcast]?” Darman’s answer has been frequently quoted:

Stahl: [Darman replied,] “Nobody heard what you said.”

Did I hear him right? “Come on, that was a tough piece.”

[Darman:] “You guys in Televisionland haven’t figured it out, have you? When the pictures are powerful and emotional, they override if not completely drown out the sound. I mean it, Lesley. Nobody heard you.”
All of which squares with what researchers tell us is the impact of candidates faces on voters choices.

When you cast your ballot for president in November, something as simple as the candidate's face could play a role in your decision.

Sound hard to believe?

A growing body of research supports the notion that a candidate's attempts to establish himself as a powerful leader can be helped or hurt by his facial features. Appearance is not, of course, the sole factor that sways voters, but experts who have studied the link between faces and people's perceptions say we place more emphasis on looks than we think.

Facial structure can play a role in how trustworthy, strong and charismatic we perceive someone to be, said Caroline Keating, a psychology professor at Colgate University who studies facial structure and perceptions of power. . . .

Alexander Todorov, an assistant professor of psychology at Princeton University, gave people photos of unfamiliar political candidates who won and were runners-up in state governor races. He asked people to pick the most competent candidates, and they chose the winners 68 percent of the time.
Anne Ryman, "Face it, looks do influence our pick for president," The Arizona Republic, July 5, 2008.

Many thoughts came to mind as I was reading Stephen Hunter's column this morning.

I remembered the conversations with Democrats while marching in the Coralville Fourth of July Parade (for the November 4th conservation bond issue) yesterday, and with others at dinner last night. Those memories called to mind a story my colleague Arthur Bonfield tells. A student came rushing into his office in 1972, all excited. "What is it?" Arthur asked. "Oh, Professor Bonfield, McGovern's going to win!" "Really?" Arthur replied, "And what makes you so confident of that?" "Oh, Professor Bonfield, everybody I know is for McGovern!" The student was truthful; everyone he knew was for McGovern. It's just that there were a lot of people he didn't know who weren't. It seems, I am discovering, that there are a good many Obama supporters who either don't know, or don't care, about his newly found and expressed positions that he may be taking with him into the White House -- or actually prefer the "new Obama" to the "old Obama."

I thought of Bill "Elvis" Clinton, John "Camelot" Kennedy, and the CBS "60 Minutes" segment "Ronald Reagan the Movie."

I was reminded of the Broadway play, "The Selling of the President," with which I was involved in a minor way. The theater doubled as a TV production studio, where the audience watched the transformation of a hayseed Nebraska senator (Pat Hingle's "Senator George W. Mason") into a presidential candidate, complete with singing commercials cleverly designed to appeal to various demographic groups. The point of the musical, to the extent there was one, was to dramatize for the audience some insight into the ways in which they were being manipulated by political campaigns, TV commercials, and the media. It didn't work. I'll never forget, standing in the back of the theater on opening night, listening to the conversations of audience members as they left, when one woman said to her husband, "Wasn't that George Mason simply wonderful? Don't you wish we really had people like that to vote for?" We'd failed in our purpose (or at least my purpose). We'd simply sold her our candidate.

A scene from the 1997 movie, "Wag the Dog" came to mind. A president seeking re-election must deal with a potential sex scandal weeks before election day. He calls in a top political advisor, Conrad Brean (played by Robert DeNiro) who proposes the campaign create "the appearance of a war" to divert the media's attention from the scandal. Brean pitches the idea to a Hollywood producer, Stanley Motss (played by Dustin Hoffman) who, once he figures out what Brean has in mind, responds incredulously, "You want me to produce your war?"

Isn't that what we're confronting? Isn't Senator Obama's transformation, his "re-branding," merely a form of the "producing of a president"? Isn't that what's going on with Senator McCain? Isn't that what's been going on with our selection of America's presidents for at least the last 48 years -- if not, in some earlier variations, from the time of George Washington's swearing in on April 30, 1789?

Hunter's not that far off the mark. I don't know enough about the movies to know if all of his examples and conclusions are sound -- though intuitively they appear to be. What I do know is that he has, as we say in law school, "spotted the issue."

We're not "voters," we're "casting agents," picking the leading man for "Live, from the White House, It's 'The Next Four Years.'"

Let's hope we at least pick one who is not only able to act but, like Fred Astaire, "can dance a little" as well.

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