Politicians have always been obsessed with projecting a certain image. Franklin Roosevelt, for instance, wanted to be seen as strong and in command. His particular concern was that he had suffered from polio and was confined to a wheelchair. How could he run for president and be considered a strong leader if he was wheelchair-bound? Fortunately for him, he lived in a time before television. His people could craft the image he wanted. It’s difficult to find any photos of FDR in his wheelchair. Instead, we see pictures such as this one:
FDR could stand only because he had leg braces. He could hold steady only if he was gripping a podium or if someone [as in this picture] held an arm for him to grasp. This is how the public perceived him. Image won out over reality.
In 1960, John F. Kennedy ran against Richard Nixon for the presidency. This time television was the vehicle for helping to promote a certain image for JFK. He came across as youthful and vigorous. Nixon, meanwhile, in one of the debates, was recovering from a sickness. He also had a serious “five o’clock shadow” that made him look dark and suspicious. The Kennedy people succeeded in raising the temperature in the studio so Nixon, who would sweat easily, would be even more uneasy and appear less appealing.
Those debates may have turned the election. What’s especially interesting about them is that people who listened to the debates on radio thought Nixon had one, while those who watched them on TV gave the nod to JFK.
In fact, the image was just as phony as FDR’s ability to stand. JFK was not healthy; he had severe back problems and was constantly being injected with drugs to withstand the pain. He brought a doctor to the White House who constantly shot him full of amphetamines. The man was nicknamed “Dr. Feelgood.” Image trumped reality.
We now have a president who has crafted another image, that of a suave, cool communicator who can sway crowds with his wonderful ability to give a speech. What is only beginning to be known is that he is not very good when he doesn’t have a teleprompter to help him.
I remember seeing a video of one of his rallies during the campaign when he was trying to talk about an issue off the cuff. I have to say it was one of the most embarrassing moments of political campaigning I have ever witnessed. He stumbled around unable to put two coherent sentences together. Even though I was opposed to his candidacy, even I was in pain for him, wanting him to do better.
What, you don’t remember that video being played over and over again on network and cable TV? It was ignored completely. It didn’t fit the image that the news media had of their candidate. Call me cynical if you like, but I believe that if it had been a Republican, everyone in the country would have seen it repeatedly.
Even now, as president, Obama always has a teleprompter. It is omnipresent. People are beginning to notice. One cartoonist has expressed it this way:
We need to be alert to the difference between the image politicians want to project and the reality of who they are.