Why image matters more in 2000

In the absence of burning issues, voters rely on candidates' style oversubstance.

The small convoy of Harley Davidsons rumbles up the driveway and up to the edge of the Republican picnic.

Elizabeth Dole, resplendent in black jacket, jeans, and blue pumps, hops off the back of her motorcycle and doffs her helmet, mussing her usually tidy coiffure. It is the perfect political moment - perfect, that is, for the modern era, where candidate style doesn't just matter, it's almost everything. And in this period of peace and prosperity, when no issues burn too seriously for the average American, gut feelings about candidates often matter more than their stands on issues.

In fact, say cultural observers, image and style have never mattered more in politics, as electronic media proliferate and news cycles speed up, steering the public away from calm reflection and toward superficial judgment. Many Americans have just given up and stopped voting; others often seem contented to back the candidate who simply makes them feel the best.

"Pollsters are always asking issue types of questions, and from that, we get a false impression of the way that people judge candidates," says Karlyn Bowman, an expert on polling at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. "I think most of us want a candidate we feel comfortable with, who we think shares our values - and some of those may be policy values, but some of those may be a more indefinite, inchoate sense of what people are."

This election season, the trend toward superficial judgment has been enhanced by the earlier-than-ever start of the campaign. Pollsters, in a way, are forcing voters into making superficial snap judgments by asking voters "who they like" well before the candidates have articulated their positions in any detail.

Only now is Texas Gov. George W. Bush - for months already, the overwhelming favorite in polls to win the GOP nomination and the White House itself - beginning to lay out specifics.

For Mrs. Dole, former head of the American Red Cross and a serious contender as Governor Bush's "heir" for the No. 1 Republican slot should he stumble, riding in on a Harley adds a little populism and fun to her polished, inside-the-Beltway persona. "She's charismatic, and she's a very honest person," says Mary Ann Clapham of Bedford, N.H., when asked to explain her support. She can't name any key issues, off-hand.

Swagger and twang

But of all nine GOP contenders, it's Bush who wins the image race hands down. He combines the swagger and twang of former president and fellow Texan Lyndon Johnson with the good-natured insouciance of former President Reagan. Little touches, such as cowboy boots and a big Texas belt buckle remind us of his roots. Being young and handsome and coming from a successful political family also don't hurt.

"When people react to George Bush, what are they reacting to?" asks cultural historian Neal Gabler. "They're reacting almost purely to the visual of George Bush. He's confident and he's attractive, and he gives off good vibes.... That's the only thing that 99 percent of the American people know about George W. Bush."

For supporters of other candidates in the race, the importance of style can be a point of exasperation. Millionaire publisher Steve Forbes packs his speeches with specifics and substance, but his awkward appearance and style virtually eliminate him as a serious contender for the nomination, says Mr. Gabler, whose newest book is "Life the Movie: How Entertainment Conquered Reality."

Movie personas

In movies, leaders are still portrayed as white, manly men - an image that infuses Americans' consciousness when they vote. And so, he says, the nation is still not ready for a woman or a minority as president. Nor will it elect someone who is stylistically challenged.

Herman Cain, chairman of Godfather's Pizza and national co-chairman of the Forbes campaign, knows this very well. A natural at public speaking, Mr. Cain advises Mr. Forbes on how to be a more effective communicator and observes the publisher from the sidelines at campaign appearances. The challenge for Cain - who just published a book, "Speak as a Leader: Develop the Better Speaker in You" - is to help Forbes improve while still being himself.

If Forbes, for example, had arrived at last week's GOP picnic here in Salem, N.H., on the back of a Harley Davidson, it would have probably just provoked laughter (and perhaps accusations that he was trying to imitate his more flamboyant, motorcycle-riding father).

Cain says he's helped Forbes to loosen up a bit, and also to tailor his speeches better to his audience. Forbes, he says, has learned he doesn't have to pack his entire agenda into every speech.

Still, Cain understands the growing importance of looking good - and he blames the public for this trend, not the candidates.

"Many people are communications lazy," he says. "They really don't want to spend a lot of time listening to the content or the depth as much as they want to look at the style and the delivery."

Historians note that style and demeanor have always mattered to a certain degree. George Washington had the bearing of a general. Even Abraham Lincoln, who was not handsome, still had a statesmanlike bearing.

Image is everything

But the days of having an overweight president (see William Howard Taft) are probably long gone. It's also now been almost 30 years since America had a bald president.

So how can one explain the two presidential victories of Richard Nixon, by no measure a handsome or charismatic man?

Look at the context of the times, says cultural historian Gabler. The Democrats were rejected because of the Vietnam War.

And Nixon, as a former vice president, was "kind of the inevitable figure in the Republican Party" and so the grass roots of the party supported him. But that election marked the last gasp of the strong party system.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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