When Kennedy beat Nixon in 1960, it was widely believed that he did so because he looked better on television. Since then, the pattern has repeated itself. Even when the least attractive recent president, George H. Bush, won, he only had to beat Michael Dukakis and that was a no-brainer.
Reagan, Clinton, and George W. Bush were all the more charismatic, by a long mile, than their competitors. Then again, they had the easy advantage of also being white. That makes it all the more interesting to watch Barack Obama and John McCain duke it out on camera in the debates.
Obama has the X-factor, no doubt about it. He makes women swoon, and he has always commanded the lens from the moment we saw him during John Kerry’s run. Poor John Kerry ­– his major weakness was his inability to out-charisma Bush. Al Gore may have gotten more charismatic over the years, but when he ran against Bush, really, there was no contest. Elections as Charm Contests have always been a primary means of choosing the leader of the free world.
The more difficult call is in the vice presidential race where two charismatic folks are running against each other and, again, both have the lucky advantage of being white. Sarah Palin probably wins on charisma alone but loses points for being one of those people who fakes it when she doesn’t know what she’s talking about; she would be far more powerful if she simply admitted she knew nothing. Look how far that very thing got our current president. Americans don’t care if you’re stupid – as long as you don’t pretend to be something you’re not.
Unfortunately, John McCain has almost everything against him, charisma-wise, in these later months. Early on he was playing the friendly, no-nonsense barfly in the town hall meetings. But after going on such an aggressive attack against Obama, he has all but lost his charm. His jokes aren’t that funny and his bitterness is palpable. Most of the time when people attack him it’s on his looks – his teeth, his posture, his lizard-like lip-smacking, and his pasty white skin. This ghoulish effect is intensified when appearing next to someone as good-looking as Obama.
So what can McCain do about this? Not a lot, and that’s why Sarah Palin is on the ticket. McCain can’t get an instant tan or a decent makeup person so, if I may, a few tips for the candidate that will help him look better on camera.
1) He needs to lay off Obama during debates. Imagine how different it would be if he was nice and kind to Obama? People like Obama. A lot. Kids, women, men, white people, black people. So when you diss Obama you do so at your own peril. Isn’t there any campaign person who can give poor John McCain a clue?
2) Stop being one of those people who smiles to mask anger or giggles when putting down his opponent. Again, doesn’t come off well on TV. It’s better to laugh at actual jokes and smile with your heart. McCain’s smile is too menacing.
3) With the economy in total collapse, it’s not a good time to blather on and on about the war. He can’t win on the war right now, not unless someone blows up a building or bombs Iran.
4) Relax. Audiences can sense fear. Remember how George Bush just knew he was going to win on charm and didn’t need to do much? A relaxed McCain would come off as far more presidential. Do we really want someone leading this country who gets THAT rattled? No, I don’t think do.
5) Find a way to make Old Man Potter more likable than George Bailey. Surely it can be done. Can’t it?