Don’t worry — I promise I won’t get political.
It’s just that questions about our presidential candidates’ television presences have been running through my head for a few weeks now, most obviously because of their televised debates. The debates are TV events in their own right, and while their actual effectiveness is arguable, their popularity is not: about 60 million viewers tuned in to each of the three presidential debates, the last of which took place Monday night. Pundits, critics and commentators have had a lot to say about these performances, whether it be about the candidates’ assertiveness (or lack thereof), the vitriol in their comments or the size of their American flag pins.
Really, everything has been covered. But what was there for the truly undecided voters — because they are, after all, the ones whom the debates are supposed to help — to glean from any of it? Not much by the way of truth, if you ask me. That I needed to watch each debate with PolitiFact at hand in order to sort out the lies (or half-truths) being thrown in both directions is evidence enough. So taking it as a near-given that the debates aren’t the most useful decision-making tools, why do we keep watching?
I have one word for you: theatricality. We are fixated by these concrete dramatizations of the disagreements that the candidates’ opposing viewpoints have set up from the beginning of this presidential race. I think many of us know this about ourselves; the candidates certainly know it about us. Why else would they go through such strenuous debate preparations? Debate prep is rehearsal for perhaps the biggest performances of their campaigns, where they will have the opportunity to be heard by more Americans at once than in any other situation. Yet in this presentation to the masses, issues get lost. President Obama has openly stated that he does not like the televised debates; essentially, he finds them gimmicky and more about selling yourself than anything else. Interestingly, however, he has chosen to make other kinds of television appearances throughout his campaign.
President Obama talked to Jay Leno on NBC’s “The Tonight Show” this week. He appeared on Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show” with Jon Stewart a few weeks ago and on CBS’ “Late Show with David Letterman” last month. These appearances are his way of making sure his message still gets out there (though certainly to fewer viewers) amidst the contradictions thrown around in the debates. They’re still performances, but they’re ones in which Obama has more control over the script. In this way, talk show appearances can be their own gimmick (though I could say that about any political strategy).
Considering the ability to shape public perception that comes along with a talk-show appearance, I wonder how, if at all, Mitt Romney’s choice to actively avoid late-night talk shows will affect his standing. Romney has avoided not just late-night talk shows but all talk shows. He has avoided ABC’s“The View” in particular, saying that appearing on the show would be “high risk” for him because co-host Elisabeth Hasselbeck is the show’s only conservative. Romney was scheduled to appear this month on the show with his wife, Ann, but cancelled, and Ann appeared on the show alone last week.
Romney could have benefited from more TV appearances throughout his campaign; perhaps such a strategy would have enabled the public to get to know him better and to separate him from his sharp-toothed debate persona. Or maybe he was smart to avoid situations in which the spin on his personality might have been unfavorable because that’s the key: the spin. Whether in dog-eat-dog-eat-moderator debates or in more overtly friendly talk-show appearances, candidates are manipulating truths —and we keep buying into it. For all of their expert knowledge and skill, candidates are little more than actors to us — and not always good ones, at that — in the midst of their campaigns.
Bridget Mullen is a sophomore in the College. SMALL-SCREEN OBSESSIONS appears every other Friday in the guide.