Marshall McLuhan on Politician Image Projection


Politics will eventually be replaced by imagery. The politician will be only too happy to abdicate in favor of his image, because the image will be much more powerful than he could ever be”.Marshall McLuhan

New NDP leader Thomas Mulcair smile on stage during the NDP leadership convention in Toronto on Saturday, March 24, 2012. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young

New NDP leader Thomas Mulcair smile on stage during the NDP leadership convention in Toronto on Saturday, March 24, 2012. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young

By: Bruce Cheadle, The Canadian Press   –   Posted: 03/25/2012

TORONTO – Mission Mulcair: to beardly go where few politicians have gone before.

All but unremarked upon in the NDP’s agonizingly slow — and consequently much-analyzed — choice Saturday of Montreal MP Thomas Mulcair to lead Her Majesty’s loyal Opposition has been his facial hair.

As a putative prime minister-in-waiting, Mulcair steps into the public spotlight leading with his chin. His rich, dark pelt of a neatly trimmed beard is as much a part of his persona as his famously mercurial temperament.

And in an age of whiskerless political leaders, it’s also something of an image gamble.

Not since Mackenzie Bowell in 1894 have Canadians had a bearded prime minister, and Bowell managed the feat without actually running for the office. The Conservative senator got the nod when then-prime minister John Thompson suddenly died.

Bowell may not be an inspirational figure for Mulcair. Apart from his dramatic, spade-like facial hair, Bowell’s two-year reign was notable for him being the only prime minister to be forced to resign by members of his own cabinet, which he labelled “a nest of traitors.”

Charles Tupper’s massive mutton chops almost qualify him as a bearded leader, but his brief 10-week tenure as prime minister in 1896 just wasn’t enough for him to try the full grizzly.

Robert Borden’s regal moustache during almost a decade in office from 1911 to 1920 marks the last time a prime minister rose to power while sporting whiskers.

William Taft was the last U.S. president with facial hair, and his single, moustachioed term ended in 1913.

Pierre Trudeau briefly grew a beard following an Arctic trek during his few months in opposition in 1979, but the lesson he took from that experience won’t comfort Mulcair.

Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau sports a beard after returning from a wilderness canoe trip in the Northwest Territories, in Ottawa, Aug 15, 1979. Declassified records show the CIA secretly painted Trudeau as a politician torn between being leader of the Third World and a genuine player with global industrialized nations.The January 1982 assessment of the Liberal prime minister's ambitions is among several detailed � and until now virtually unknown � analyses of the Canadian economy by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Mike Van Dusen

 Trudeau once told an interviewer that philosopher Marshall McLuhan — who famously coined the maxim, “the medium is the message” — had written to him about the beard, providing what Trudeau felt was counter-intuitive advice.

“He said, ‘You’ve cooled your image several degrees’ — which is what I wanted, I suppose, subconsciously because I was in opposition and I was trying to keep a low profile,” Trudeau told the CBC in November 1980.

“I would have thought a beard attracted more interest but (McLuhan) had reached the contrary conclusion. And I think he probably was right because he went on to say: ‘And you can keep that in mind if ever you want to hot up your image again.'”

It worked, Trudeau recounted.

“In effect, when I cut my beard off people say, ‘Oh my gosh, Trudeau’s back in politics.’ I was no longer retiring, just because I’d cut my beard off.”

A clean-shaven Trudeau was swept back into office in February 1980.

But perhaps New Democrats are doing their own subconscious image channelling.


John Doyle used McLuhan’s ideas about political image in discussing presidential contender Barack Obama back in Feb. 2008.

Obama: truly cool, in a McLuhanesque sense

Most people in the U.S. get their news from television. Most of them have gained their impression of Barack Obama from TV. Watch Obama closely on TV and, instantly, it is revealed why he excites Americans.

On TV, he’s cool in the sense that Marshal McLuhan described TV as a cool medium. That is, cool media require participation or completion by the audience – the viewer can project a great deal onto certain people on TV, people who understand its “cool” quality. It’s about a sublimated message generated by some people in their relationship with the TV cameras. In Obama’s case the message is that he’s completely confident, unruffled, relaxed and has nothing to hide. 

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