The Optimal TV Image for Politicians is “Cool”, not “Hot”


On Sep. 26, 1960 Massachusetts Sen. John F. Kennedy squared off against Vice President Richard Nixon in Chicago for the first of four debates between the two. It was also the first televised presidential debate in U.S. history — a fact that proved key to the outcome of the election.


Is This JFK vs. Nixon Deja Vu?   –   Posted: 07/12/2012 7:29 pm

Marshall McLuhan was an influential communications theorist who wrote that, in the 1960 presidential campaign, Richard Nixon did not play well in televised debates, because he was a “hot” personality in a cool new medium. Nixon’s discomfort and sweaty upper lip made him look untrustworthy and unsteady.

By contrast, John F. Kennedy won debates because he was “cool.” He projected a calm confidence, wit and youthful vigor. When he took the oath of office on a bitterly cold January day, he didn’t wear a hat. In the ’60s, cool guys didn’t do hats.

After unremarkable stints in the U.S. Senate, Kennedy and Obama decided to run for president. Nixon and Romney lost their first tries and retooled. The “new Nixon” re-emerged, while Romney got religion on several key social issues. Obama’s campaign caught fire in January 2008 when JFK’s daughter Caroline endorsed him.

In McLuhan’s terms, Obama is the cool leader, seemingly unrattled by the world’s problems. (Perhaps to a fault, some would say.) His poise during the economy’s free fall in 2008 stood in sharp contrast to John McCain’s obvious unease.

President Obama’s coolest moment came the night of May 1, 2011. Without a hint of anxiety at the White House correspondents dinner, he made well-received wisecracks, mostly about Donald Trump in the audience. He then hurried back to the White House to watch the attack on Osama bin Laden’s compound that he had ordered earlier. How cool was that?

He sang Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together” in tune and in front of Green at the Apollo Theater in Harlem. The crowd loved his falsetto “I-I-I-I’m sooo in love with you.” People all over the country began using it as a ring tone on their phones, and sales of the song jumped almost 500 percent overnight.

A Boston radio host played Obama’s pitch-perfect riff followed by Romney’s cringe-inducing version of “America the Beautiful.” The DJ abruptly declared the race over. Even Fox News morning hosts begged their crew to stop playing Romney’s ear-damaging rendition.

Romney made a quiet pilgrimage to Fox News boss Roger Ailes, who got his start in politics advising Nixon on performing on televison. Nixon campaigns were street brawls; Romney leaves the dirty work to his super PAC.

Always dangerous off script, Romney ludicrously praised the height of trees in Michigan, foolishly pretended a waitress in New Hampshire had pinched his butt, and pandered over “cheesy grits” in the South. He declared, “Corporations are people, my friend.” He offered a $10,000 bet with one of his GOP opponents. He bragged, “My wife Ann drives a couple of Cadillacs.”

Like Nixon, Romney is “hot” on TV and looks uncomfortable out of a business suit. Unlike Nixon, who famously wore black oxfords on the beach, Romney never sweats. This android appearance makes him seem artificial.

Nixon was obsessed with the Kennedys, John and Ted, with whom he jousted on a national health care plan. Romney’s political career is defined by Ted Kennedy, first running against him then working with him on the Massachusetts health care plan.

When the presidential seal fell off the front of his podium while he was addressing a large gathering, Obama stopped, looked down and said, “It’s alright. You all know who I am.” That’s the point, we know who he is. He’s not an out-of-touch billionaire with four homes and money stashed in a Swiss bank account and trust funds and investments hidden in tax havens like Bermuda and the Cayman Islands. Nixon resented wealth, Romney embodies it.

The president’s personal favorability remains relatively high, compared to his job performance ratings. I’m not saying Obama will win because he’s cool. Well, a little, maybe. People like Obama and want him to succeed. They don’t like Romney; he’s just a change. If the economy weren’t in bad shape, Obama would be winning by 50 points.

Dan Payne is a Boston-based Democratic analyst who has worked for Democratic candidates around the country; he does political commentary for WBUR radio.

You can watch the JFK-Nixon 1960 TV Debate on YouTube:


The Toronto Globe & Mail’s John Doyle made the same comment about Barack Obama’s cool image back in 2008:

On TV, [Obama is] 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.

To truly find the core of his appeal one has to watch him away from the podium, before or after he makes a speech. The speeches are glorious in their cadence and inspirational message. But look at him walking around and you’ll see a man with a hand in his pocket, loping along, quick with a smile but never unctuous. He’s a slight figure, slim and debonair in a suit but without a necktie. He looks serene with himself, and the body language, the easy, relaxed movement, suggests that this is a man fleet of foot and swift of mind.

One Response to “The Optimal TV Image for Politicians is “Cool”, not “Hot””

  1. 1 Meade vs. López Obrador vs. Anaya | Semana 10 | Del 6 al 12 de febrero del 2018 |Cierre de Precampañas – CapitalSocial Investigaciones

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