TV image informs, but doesn't reveal candidates' political skills, experts say

Would George Washington make it to the White House today? He might not. Then again, he might.

Watching the presidential debates, political experts are struck anew by the enormous impact and influence of television on the selection of presidents. And they wonder whether, in a news-media age dominated by the TV tube, the country brings forth its best leaders for the highest office in the land.

''I don't believe the American people would have elected George Washington,'' comments Clark Clifford, a Democrat with a long record of distinguished public service.

''You read about (him) with those awful teeth of his - and he had a little lisp. That wouldn't have come over the tube well at all. Abraham Lincoln presented a very unattractive physical picture to the people at the time; a lot of people called him 'that baboon in the White House.'

''Someday, some very dangerous fellow could be enormously appealing on television, and we would fear for our country,'' Mr. Clifford says. ''If we've gotten to the point where the tube is so important - the presentation of the candidate, his charm, his voice, and the pitch of his attitude - and (this) is what impresses people - then we may have run into trouble.''

Others believe such concerns are exaggerated.

''The medium has been overevaluated,'' comments longtime Republican strategist John Sears. ''I don't think we live in an age where everything depends on the tube. If a man is good enough to demonstrate his capabilities, that is more important than whether he is handsome or glib or facile on television.''

Kathleen Jamieson, a communications expert at the University of Maryland, sees a net gain in today's mode of communication.

''In the 19th century, people never saw a president, they just read about him in partisan newspapers,'' she says. ''Now at least they have an exposure to him and some information.''

Whether politicians decry, fear, or applaud the influence of TV, one thing is clear: They cannot ignore it. They need television in order to communicate their messages.

According to media expert Austin Ranney, politicians have to function in a world ''in which political reality for most people is what television says it is.'' Television can complicate life for them - as it did for Ronald Reagan in the first presidential debate and for Walter Mondale throughout his campaign.

But television, Mr. Ranney says, can also help them ''to bring their message and personalities to far more people far more effectively than they can by any other means.''

Experts say several factors account for the growing importance of television:

* A majority of Americans now receive most of their information from the medium.

* Television tends to place more emphasis on personality features and leadership traits than on issues and ideas, and it is on personality and leadership qualities that people tend to vote.

* Television has gained in influence as the political parties have declined in recent years. More people are independent and make their judgments on the basis of leadership rather than issues.

''There's no option for a politician now but to be a good communicator,'' says presidential scholar Stephen Wayne of George Washington University.

Martha Kumar, a communications expert at Towson State University, agrees. ''Using television is now an essential part of governing,'' she says.

''With the weakening of the many traditional ties in leadership - Congress, for instance, doesn't have the same authority - the president has to be able to pull a coalition together in other ways and he has to go to the public to sell his programs. Reagan did that with his economic package. The media thus fill in a gap left by other institutions that have declined.''

President Reagan has elevated communication to a high art. His White House political advisers spend a great deal of time searching out telegenic events that make their candidate look good.

In the debates, the White House made sure that the candidates would not actually debate each other - a format which would have heightened the risk of surprise for Mr. Reagan. Instead, a panel of journalists was chosen to put questions to the candidates.

Does television show the true caliber of the presidential candidate?

While experts believe TV does reveal much about an individual's character, it also has limitations. It does not tell much about political skill.

''It shows nothing about shrewdness, the capacity to make judgments, to be innovative, to administer,'' remarks political scientist Charles Doran of the Johns Hopkins University. ''Reagan is a better President than his words were able to explain in that debate.''

''You don't see the habits of mind publicly,'' says Professor Jamieson, ''but there is no way to see that. There's no alternative.''

To the charge that television often may hide the candidate's true character, media specialists counter that unless a TV image accurately reflects the person, the communication will not work.

''Americans have been exposed to everything, and they know when the message does not match the man,'' says Doug Watts, media manager for the Reagan-Bush campaign.

''When I work with a candidate, I don't pump anything up or make them what they aren't. My objective is that his message is being clearly communicated to the voter. Then Americans make the choice. If we had no television, Reagan would still be a great communicator.''

Perhaps the most-often-heard concern about the television medium is that it is basically entertainment and that it wraps even the news and political coverage in entertainment. As a result, the quality of deliberation in American society may be declining.

''Journalism is supposed to be about facts, and people are bored with facts, '' says historian James Barber, author of ''The Pulse in Politics.''

''In presidential politics TV tends to paint candidates as lone heroes or villains, to make the whole experience a theatrical one. ... When people come out of debates they are asked, 'How did you like it?' - the same questions as if they had gone to the theater - not, 'What did you learn?'''

It is difficult to determine exactly how much television influences public opinion for good or ill in a presidential election. Many analysts think television tends to reinforce opinion rather than mold it.

''It's a catalyst,'' says Dr. Doran. ''It doesn't determine outcomes, but when there's movement - slippage in a candidate's campaign, for instance - it can accelerate opinion and become the catalyst for changing it.''

Television industry leaders, for their part, are extremely sensitive to providing fair coverage of the Democratic and Republican campaigns.

During the first debate in Louisville, the TV networks kept track of head-on and other shots, making sure there was a fair distribution, says Michael Duffy, a senior NBC producer for special events and the TV-pool producer of the debate.

As for George Washington, some experts doubt he would do poorly in the age of television.

''A candidate does not have to be handsome, but he has to present himself well,'' says Dr. Kumar. ''People really do listen and take a measure of the whole person - how they speak rather than how they look.''

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