WASHINGTON — The operative maxim in cable television can be summed up as follows: Is it good TV?
Brilliant is good, but not enough. Attractive is imperative, but not enough. Also needed are tension, conflict and passion. Television is visual storytelling and it doesn’t succeed without all elements working in sync with the additional demands of the human eye.
Keep this mind as you consider politics and, specifically, the debates of late. We require that our leaders not only be well informed, but also telegenic and fluent in sound bites and snappy comebacks. The lesson first observed during the televised Kennedy-Nixon debate — that the visual matters most of all — has become more acute as digital technology has made “replay” immortal.
Now we judge a candidate’s worthiness for public office as much according to his stage performance as by his plan to balance the budget. Scorecards include hair, makeup, wardrobe and body language. In other words, the leader of the free world has to be someone we want to watch. Is he or she good teevee?
The problem with this question is that the answer means nothing that matters. Is it really so important that the president have a savvy sense of camera angles? Do we really want to encourage that level of self-conscious preening and vanity in those we elect to the most demanding job on the planet?
Every now and then someone comes along who doesn’t care about the camera. Ron Paul and Barney Frank come to mind. Both predate the 24-hour news cycle and have been around long enough to ignore the unyielding red light. Observing Frank’s disdain for the camera is its own form of entertainment. For most politicians, however, feeling at home with camera crews, microphones and spray-on makeup is half the journey. But no one survives the harsh lens of the camera for long or the intense scrutiny it invites. If familiarity breeds contempt, then political debates inspire lip-curling loathing.
And we’ve only just begun. Still ahead, ten more months to Republican convention time. Though surely some candidates will drop out in the interim, it’s nearly certain that we will come to detest the remainders. The candidates themselves will hold each other in greater contempt if not outright hatred, early signs of which already have begun to surface. In last Tuesday’s CNN debate in Las Vegas, tension between Rick Perry and Mitt Romney was palpable — more WWE than GOP. Forget the punch line, I was waiting for the punch.
With each debate, the candidates become increasingly cartoonish as they become caricatures of themselves. This is not a criticism of the men and lone woman vying for the Republican nomination. They’re holding up pretty well under the circumstances. But it is the nature of the beast. It is also our nature to malign and denigrate the very person(s) we eventually will select to lead us.
What else could we expect from such a strange, self-destructive exercise? Properly raised humans are taught to be humble, charitable, temperate and fair, not vain, boastful, arrogant or rude. Then we throw a debate that invites all the worst traits. Watching people essentially brag about their fabulousness while grinning for approval ultimately is rewarded with the opposite. Otherwise well-intentioned, thoughtful, decent, hardworking individuals are reduced to braggarts and remembered for a few random impressions.
Here, for example, is a distillation of last Tuesday’s debate:
Rick Santorum: Mitt, you’re a lying hypocrite and I’m the only one here who cares about family.
Ron Paul: I’d eliminate the federal government and not even go to work.
Herman Cain: Nine apples, nine oranges, nine lives, whatever.
Mitt Romney: Shut up, I won already.
Rick Perry: I hate your guts, Mr. Vitalis, and I’m gonna take you down.
Newt Gingrich: Yadda-yadda-yadda. You’re all stupid.
Michele Bachman: I will hunt Mexicans with predator drones, and Barack Obama’s cake is cooked.
More or less.
There were tense moments when Santorum challenged Romney on health care and Perry tackled him for using a lawn service with illegal workers. There were also moments of humor and lucidity, thanks mostly to Gingrich, who sounded so sane and rational at times that you wanted to hug him.
This is to say, it was good teevee, but I’m not sure it was good for the country. In the end, picking the person who earns the least contempt rather than the greatest respect is a lousy way to select a leader.