Thursday, October 6, 2016
It began with the televised debate between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon. For the first time in history we were able to see the candidates up close, not just hear their voices. The arguments each one made were vital, of course, in helping the viewing public decide which candidate they preferred. But what historians speak of most when referring to that debate was the way the two looked: Kennedy, relaxed and handsome; Nixon, sweaty and nervous.
Perception played no small role in deciding which of the two came across as more likable, and, therefore, more “presidential.” So it has been ever since.
The first presidential debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump started out as a minor slugfest, dealing mostly with the issue of trade, but became a rout when Clinton began reciting Trump's many insults and refusal to release his tax returns, and he couldn't hold back his anger. His many interruptions — including his outrageous reaction that he was “smart” to avoid paying taxes — came across as childish and revelatory of the very unpresidential Donald J. Trump. He lost that debate handily not solely on the issues, but also on the perception of him as a playground bully.
Unfortunately, I felt that in the vice-presidential debate Tim Kaine did not do his solid presentation of the issues any service by his intemperate interruptions of Mike Pence, whose demeanor — like JFK's in that first TV debate — was relatively relaxed and respectful. Pence's transgressions — if we can them that — were lots of headshaking during the split screen coverage of Kaine's presentations.
Fair or not, in our days of expansive social media and extensive TV coverage, perception counts.
I remember a monologue by the comedian Don Adams before he became Maxwell Smart in the TV series “Get Smart.” He posed as a defense attorney addressing the jury during a murder case. His client was a beautiful woman. Thrusting his arm out in her direction, he urged the jury to look at her legs. “Are these the legs of a homicidal maniac?” he asked.
I don't know whether it worked, but don't sell perception short.