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Stephen King on TV's role in the election

Television has helped turn Obama vs. McCain into a rerun of Kennedy vs. Nixon

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Stephen King on TV’s role in the election

The most popular soap opera of 2008 has been the presidential campaign. Those of us who’ve become addicted to it (I am one, although I say it with no pride) have had a chance to savor every quip, gaffe, and tear. We’ve listened to thousands of pundits and 10,000 sound bites. If words were weasels, we all would’ve been bitten to death.

Yet even the best TV critics have said little this time about the influence of the Magic Box itself. Perhaps it now seems to them like a dead subject. But this year the medium really is the message, because the contrasting images haven’t been so stark since the first debates of the TV age, when Richard Nixon might have lost a squeaker to JFK because of his slightly sinister beard.

The pundits are no better than they were 48 years ago; with the exception of the delightful (and insightful) Rachel Maddow, they are the same gang of tiresome jabber-jaws. But the images are better — now we can watch John McCain’s cheek sag and Barack Obama’s ears protrude in HD — and the audience is far more sophisticated. They see more, some of it good, some bad, much beyond the candidates’ control. For instance:

Barack Obama looks like the grave and intelligent news anchor on a major-market station. John McCain, on the other hand, looks like the slightly dotty commentator who rants about the local sports teams and obscure bond issues on a small-market station. Joe Biden looks handsome and vital when the camera shoots him in front, but from behind, with that bald spot showing, he puts on 15 years. Sarah Palin, although good-looking (”Hot!” one of my friends remarked, smacking his lips even before Alec Baldwin said the same), sounds like Frances McDormand in Fargo every time she opens her mouth: ”Shurrrr!”

Both presidential candidates have annoying verbal tics that are magnified by constant exposure. McCain’s is the ever more abrasive use of ”my friends” as his oratorical default position. With Obama it’s a tendency to draw out the simple word and until he sounds like a small boy imitating a diving airplane. He’s also far too fond of ”you know” as a placeholder.

The biggest contrast that TV rams home isn’t the candidates’ different skin colors; it’s that one has an intuitive grasp of TV’s elemental power and the other does not. McCain grimaces, fidgets, and flashes frequent grins of reptilian unpleasantness. He avoids the camera and looks at his notes or TelePrompTer instead of his audience. Obama, although far from classically handsome (those ears), projects warmth, intelligence, and concern. You’d trust him to give you bad news. And the camera rarely catches him looking half-asleep as he scribbles notes. More important, Obama has a knack for TV-stillness when someone else is speaking; he rarely annoys by upstaging a questioner or an opponent. McCain can’t seem to help it.

Am I saying that Barack Obama is going to be elected because he gives better TV? I hope that isn’t the case, because there are a thousand better reasons to elect someone president…but yes. I think it’s just what I’m saying. And McCain may lose not just because the economy’s in the tank but because he comes across on TV looking like Wilford Brimley’s older brother.

How powerful is TV? Listen to this. The morning after the last debate, I rode downstairs in a hotel elevator with a Mr. Businessman type. I asked him if he’d seen the candidates go at it. He said he had. I asked him who, in his opinion, had won. ”Obama,” he said. ”McCain can’t win, at least not on TV. He just looks wrong.”

Then, as the elevator doors opened, he brightened and said he’d seen the real star of the debate on morning TV: Joe Wurzelbacher, also known as Joe the Plumber, whose name was volleyed back and forth between the candidates like a badminton birdie.

”You know who he looks like?” Mr. Businessman asked me before stepping out of the elevator. ”That bad cop on The Shield! You know, Michael Chiclets!”

And that, in a nutshell, is why John McCain will likely lose: His opponent looks like a news anchor, his Everyman hero looks like the sometimes homicidal Vic Mackey, and McCain himself resembles the TV geezer who scolds fellow senior citizens about taking care of their diabetes. This might not be the way the founding fathers imagined it, but — as Walter Cronkite used to say, back when Dick Nixon was sweating under the TV lights — that’s the way it is.