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How TV transforms the debates

By Godfrey Sperling Jr. / October 4, 1988



WHO won the debate? I'm a bit cowardly when it comes to making that call. In 1960, I was one of three newsmen covering the Nixon-Kennedy debate in Chicago who was asked to appear on a CBS-TV panel a few minutes after the antagonists faced each other in those famous confrontations. The question, of course, was ``Who won?'' I pointed out the obvious: Since appearance is so important when it comes to TV, Richard Nixon's pallid look might well have hurt him, particularly when John Kennedy's appearance was, in sharp contrast, so vibrant.

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Mr. Nixon had been ill earlier in the campaign. He had lost weight and had not gained it back. So his shirt was too large at the neck, and he did not have his usual tan. He then refused makeup that would have probably covered this up. Kennedy had a skillful makeup job. But that wasn't all. Kennedy was bouncy and witty, while Nixon had the ebullience of a wet noodle.

In that TV interview I didn't say Nixon had won. The debate was about even on debating points. I merely pointed out what my colleagues on the panel also cited as being of prime importance in assessing what we had just witnessed.

My comments stirred up Nixon supporters from coast to coast. Their angry calls caused me to hide in a hotel room for the night, and the next morning my longtime editor, Erwin Canham, phoned me from Boston. He said he had never had such an avalanche of wires and calls - all from Nixon supporters who wanted me fired. He said he told the callers that I had only said on TV what was apparent to everyone who was watching. But that didn't cool them down. Canham tried to buck me up, and said he was behind me. But I was pretty shaken and remained that way until two incidents occurred.

The Chicago Tribune, an ardent booster of Nixon, published an editorial a few days later with the judgment that Nixon had lost the debate because he looked so bad on TV. Then Nixon himself conceded that his failure to use enough proper makeup had caused him to lose the debate. When he went into the ring with Kennedy in subsequent debates that year, Nixon was wearing the necessary war paint to appear healthy and strong on black-and-white television.

As I tell this story, I am struck once again by the superficiality, the irrelevance, of a debate that was decided on the way the contestants looked. That's what television has done. With newspapers and radio, the voters, for the most part, had to concentrate on where the candidates stood on the issues. But with television, it became show biz.

Yet despite my discomfort with the ``appearance'' standard imposed by TV, I still cannot ignore it. It is there. And it was there the other night.

George Bush was friendlier, more likable. That goes a long way with TV viewers. Michael Dukakis didn't suffer by his appearance, either. His cool and collected look also goes a long way. But Mr. Bush, who even stumbled slightly, probably had greater appeal in the appearance sweepstakes. On TV, warmth wins every time.

At this point, I know I sound as though I'm talking about a beauty contest! Unfortunately, the appearance factor plays a part in these so-called debates.

Before the debate that master politician Robert Strauss gave this prediction to reporters over breakfast: If neither candidate committed a major gaffe, the result would not change the polls. Bush's supporters would believe he won, and Mr. Dukakis's backers would view him the victor. Well, that's what happened.

Actually, I found the debate engrossing. It contributed considerably to voter enlightenment on how the candidates stand on the issues, and helped viewers size up the two men.

But wait a minute. Aren't we back to appearances again? We do like to look our candidates over - particularly to see how they stand up under pressure. There's nothing wrong with that aspect of the ``appearance'' factor. The TV audience is striving to determine the character and fiber of a candidate - what his values are, how unflappable he is under fire, and whether he possesses a sense of humor.

To the extent that the debate provided such insights, it was a success. To the extent that TV diverted the viewers to superficialities, it was not a success.

Godfrey Sperling Jr. is the Monitor's senior Washington columnist.