But How Do They Play on TV?

IT'S possible that young Dave McCurdy, chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, has just what the voters want in a Democratic presidential candidate. He's likable and bright. He has won the respect of a number of House members who have seen him in action.Yet as I listened to the assessments of reporters as they filed out after a breakfast meeting with McCurdy, I heard few comments of approval. Mostly the observations were about McCurdy's voice: It was too high to be convincing. "He sounds like a kid," one journalist said, "particularly when he gets a bit excited. It won't work." But what do these reporters know? A similar group had lunch with Ronald Reagan soon after he became Governor of California. It was Reagan's first meeting with the press in Washington. He, uncharacteristically, was a bit tense. There were only a few Reagan anecdotes and no one-liners. Yet the attractive Ronald Reagan that voters couldn't get enough of was there at that table - and the reporters didn't see it. Their verdict: Reagan was too much of a lightweight to make it to the presidency. Several "political sages" and "political wisemen" were at that table back in 1968. I won't mention their names. But I must say I agreed at the time that Reagan wouldn't go any higher than Sacramento. Indeed, I had been surprised he made it that far. Jimmy Carter, then Governor of Georgia, also had his first get-together with the Washington press at a Monitor breakfast. Later, Carter regularly attended these breakfasts, and at one of them he disclosed his intention of running for president. He revealed, simply, that he had a "presidential gleam" in his eye. Afterward the reporters huddling in conversation came to this judgment: Carter was a nice little guy, but he couldn't possibly make it to the presidency because, as one old-timer put it, "He's not forceful enough." What reporters don't take into account in such assessments is television. Reagan was life-size, at best, as he met with us that noon. And without cards to refer to he didn't present his positions on national issues in a very convincing way. Yet when he went on TV as a candidate and as a president, he became an appealing and commanding figure. Carter, too, was helped by TV. It emphasized his big, warm smile. Additionally, his quiet voice and modest manner projected well. And once again newspeople were proved wrong in their early predictions on how far he would go. But by the time of the 1980 election, after Carter had been in office for four years, the public had grown tired of his smile. Hubert Humphey was a sparkling breakfast guest. He was so well informed, so enthusiastic, so witty. He would always continue on beyond the hour allotted for the session, and no reporters would leave. Humphrey was invariably late. One morning he didn't arrive until 8:30, a half hour after the normal starting time. But he stayed to nearly 11:00. We always excused his tardiness because we knew he had difficulty getting up in the morning after talking politics for half the night with some reporter or politician. But Humphrey didn't look good on TV. His fast talk made him seem glib. Indeed, the personable, likable Hubert Humphey often looked and sounded like a smart-aleck on the tube. We all know the often-told story of how Kennedy beat Nixon by "looking better" on TV in that famous, first debate. Many observers who afterward just listened to the tape without the video concluded that Nixon actually won. But on TV, all that most voters saw was a poised, vivacious Kennedy and a Nixon who was sober and dark - apparently in need of a shave. Several of the candidates or possible candidates have been in recently for breakfast besides Dave McCurdy: Paul Tsongas, Doug Wilder, Tom Harkin, and Bill Clinton. To hear the assessment of the reporters afterward, one could conclude that none of these men has the stuff to make it to the White House. Perhaps. But let's wait first to see how they do on TV.

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