Television Appearances and Presidential Popularity
SOME advice for Mr. Clinton: I'm beginning to believe that too much public viewing of any president, particularly on television, steadily dilutes his popularity. By the end of his term we have grown tired of him.
Ronald Reagan was an exception. That veteran actor instinctively knew, as he told his aides, that he could "wear out" his image. Thus, backed by wife Nancy's urgings, he actually controlled his exposure to public view. We still saw a lot of him. That was inevitable. But he limited his appearances before the TV camera to speeches and official announcements.
Jimmy Carter was just as popular as Bill Clinton when he came to Washington. The public hailed the Carters as they walked down Pennsylvania Avenue. They loved this smiling, chatty, president who donned a sweater during his early TV conversations. Yet when he left office his approval rating was 34 percent. Mr. Reagan's was 63 percent.
I can't deny that the decline and fall of presidents relates mainly to their record - how they dealt with the problems they faced. Yet presidents, since the day when television first became so influential in shaping voter judgment, have been immensely helped or hurt by the tube. Their appearance on TV is all-important: Whether they "looked" like leaders; how warm and friendly they seemed to be (Reagan, not very approachable in private life, was perceived as the easy-to-know neighbor next door on televisi on); and, of course, how convincing they were in discussing major issues.
Actually, we don't really know precisely how TV has changed the political world. But we know it has. And one factor that is proving to have an important bearing on presidents staying in office is overexposure on TV.
Presidents who were acclaimed when they took office had worn out their welcome after four years. Didn't they have substantive problems? Sure. But TV played a part, too.
Take George Bush. He was riding high in the polls after overwhelming Michael Dukakis. We don't have to be reminded of his exit: A 37 percent backing. And there were substantial reasons: The economy and a voter desire for change. But I think that people had grown tired of President Bush. He simply didn't wear well on TV. No president had been more visible. He was always meeting with the press. In fact, he set a record for press conferences that will be difficult for any president to approach, let alone ex ceed.
All this is not to say that overexposure is the only cause of presidential troubles. Watergate brought down Richard Nixon. That's why we wearied of that president - not because we saw so much of him on TV. Even though Mr. Nixon certainly never found television very friendly to him. Remember the debates with John Kennedy of 1960?
Lyndon Johnson found the country turning against him because of United States involvement in the Vietnam War, not because of overexposure on TV. But, again, we had become very fatigued at seeing that overbearing fellow on television by the time it finally occurred to him that he should announce he would be leaving.
So, because I believe in an open and continuing flow of information and communication from our government officials to the American people, via all aspects of the media, I find myself feeling a little uncomfortable with my advice to President Clinton.
Yes, do keep us well informed, Mr. President. But please don't wear us out, particularly on TV. You are going to do just that if you decide to bounce around from one talk show to another, as you did during the campaign. Even George Washington might have hurt his image that way.