According to one of the favorite half-truths of this election year, television has revolutionized the political process of choosing a president. The candidate, it is asserted gloomily, has been reduced to an image -- a sort of leadership-mirage put together with fiendish expertness by camera and PR.
If this is so, we may well ask, why was the first debate between Reagan and Anderson staged with all the flair of a turn-of-the-century spelling bee? Indeed in the 20 years since Richard Nixon and John Kennedy first donned pancake makeup, presidential debates have generally been televised with a static lack of imagination to make Miss America pageants and Emmy ceremonies appear avant-garde.
If Svengalis are out there, capable of giving irresistible vote-getting charisma to a bump on a log, how come the charm packages are no better? Consider the roster of presidents during the Television Age, when, supposedly, the most photogenic man, not the best man, wins. Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter -- these are not exactly figures to the camera born. In fact, their most ardent admirers would not suggest they could compete in image with such pretelevision personalities as Winston Churchill, Charles de Gaulle, or Franklin D. Roosevelt. Those were the glamour boys for you! Men of the theater with profile and gesture and cadenced passion -- the whole act down pat. And not a camera in sight except Movietone News.
If we are to believe this year's myth, our candidates are all style and no substance because that's the approved way of selling toothpaste -- and everything else -- on TV. But the least substantive candidate of the century -- the man who got elected most purely on image -- was Warren Gamaliel Harding. He looked like everybody's idea of a president, and that was about it.
Even if one accepts the premise of election-by-television, the law of the tube reads: To survive inevitable over-exposure,a personality must be low-key to the point of diffidence, like an anchor man on the evening news.
Rather than making us more vulnerable to a demagogue -- the ultimate fear of those who attribute magic power to a politician fixating on his camera -- television is likely to encourage the victory of blandness. Huey Long would shatter our sets -- and our nerves -- like a used-car commercial. Somebody like Frank Perdue would defeat William Jennings Bryan every time.
Ronald Reagan, cited as the television candidate par excellence, illustrates the dilemma of the medium. If he stays within the personality-decibels that this most intimate of forums allows, neither he nor anybody else can project strong leadership. On the tube strong leadership comes across abrasive. The confidence of an announcer delivering a "message of importance" is about all the authority the small screen can accommodate without embarrassment.
Alas, the chief effect of television on politics may be that it too often puts citizens to sleep. It might seem as difficult to stage a dull debate as a boring shoot-out at O.K. Corral. Yet election after election we get on our split screen the candidates for the highest office in the land presented like two schoolboys on commencement day, all dressed up and ill at ease, delivering set speeches by installments.
For, of course, these are not really debates at all, and that, finally, is what we feel television owes us. In 1858 Stephen Douglas engaged in a series of debates with Abraham Lincoln, running for senator from Illinois. The two men shared a platform 40 times in 100 days, while traveling some 5,000 miles. Crowds of up to 8,000 turned out.
There was plenty of style as well as substance -- Douglas, five ft. four in., superbly tailored, a polished orator; Lincoln, six fit. four in., rupled, with a rough eloquence that sputtered to flame as a speech went on.
But there were the issues too, and they got hammered out in this dialogue, for Lincoln and for the nation. The policies on slavery were examined and challenged until they were forced to stand up and become philosophies. Would Lincoln, or the country, have been prepared for what followed without these debates?
Are our issues less grave, less consequential in 1980? How we could use a thorough, ongoing debate right now!
What we really need is not less television but more.