Columns

Playing for the cameras

Anthony Wilson-Smith February 28 2000
Columns

Playing for the cameras

Anthony Wilson-Smith February 28 2000

Playing for the cameras

Columns

Anthony Wilson-Smith

Amidst the self-absorbed world of political junkies, one of the most famous stories concerns the first 1960 televised presidential debate between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon. It was relatively early days for TV, and some people still preferred radio. Many of those who listened to the debate on radio thought Nixon won: in the first couple of days after the event, that view was widespread. But Nixon had perpetual five o’clock shadow, a bad makeup job, and perspired heavily. Kennedy, by contrast, had a fresh tan—always a good thing on TV—and a youthful, clean-cut, relaxed appearance. In the eyes of viewers, it was no contest, and it was a turning point for Kennedy.

It’s always better in politics to look marvellous than to simply feel that way, and the business of image has become more complex during the past four decades. It’s extremely doubtful that Lester Pearson, with his bow tie, slight lisp and mild demeanour, could ever become prime minister in the present era, in which televised coverage is such a routine fact of life. All he had, poor man, was his intellect and his deserved stature. By contrast, it’s likely that Pearsons successor, Pierre Trudeau, became leader because of TV: the Liberal Establishment members who oversaw the party machinery only accepted an outsider because of the undeniable evidence of Trudeaumania spreading across the country.

In short, TV cuts both ways—as the Liberals have been reminded to their chagrin lately. In the ongoing Grantscam debate in the House of Commons, they have, for the most part, escaped serious damage because the divided opposition parties aren’t equal to the task of inflicting it. But while they win the battle in Parliament, the Liberals lose the overall war— because the same tactics that work in the Commons fail abysmally on television.

Author and communications consultant Bill Fox, who was Brian Mulroney’s first press secretary, compares the difference between a good appearance in the Commons and a favourable television image to that between acting onstage and in movies. Onstage—or in the Commons—broad, overblown words and gestures play well against the backdrop of constant cacophony: it’s good to be a ham. But on the more distant, less intimate television or movie screen, the same act just looks cheesy. Fox is too much a friend to his old boss to say so, but that theory explains Mulroney’s successes with caucus and failures with voters simultaneously.

Now, for some of the same reasons, Jean Chrétien is feeling the heat. Both men, each now in their 60s, were well into their political lives before House of Commons proceedings were televised. In the House, elementary schoolyard rules prevail: he or she who shouts louder and heckles longer than their opponents is considered the winner. Similarly, there’s no question of ever acknowledging that someone on the other side might be right, or one of your own people wrong: loyalty matters far more than logic. For a long time, since Canadians didn’t get to see or hear MPs inside their own private Bedlam, it didn’t matter. And—in the same way that kids usually behave better when their parents are around—everyone behaved better when they went back to their ridings.

Those are the rules that prevailed when Chrétien arrived in Ottawa in the early 1960s, and he still behaves that way. The Prime Minister you see at public gatherings speaks in careful, measured tones: his close friend and adviser Eddie Goldenberg spent a lot of time working on those mannerisms with his boss when Chrétien became Liberal leader in 1990. Similarly, Chrétien, in small gatherings or one-to-one meetings, often displays an innate reserve and quiet dignity.

Those admirable qualities go out the window when he hits the House. There, as he explains his government’s inability to properly explain billions of dollars in poorly audited or partisan job grants, Chrétien plays like a cross between Bart Simpson—all boasts, bellows and barely repressed giggles— and Bart’s father, Homer, forever befuddled and put-upon. The problem is that where the Simpsons make their audience chortle, it’s the Prime Minister who, in this case, gives the impression of laughing at his electorate.

It’s a reminder of a fundamental axiom in the TV business: the camera never lies. In other words, if someone appears shifty, blustery or ditzy when interviewed on TV, there’s a good chance they’re that way in real life as well. The same is true in reverse: you can tell a nice person just as easily.

Another thing TV people say is that in choosing guests for talk shows, they often apply an “age discount”: they presume older people are less comfortable in front of a camera, and less likely to be natural. Mulroney in person is warm, engaging and sometimes earthy, but in public speeches he uses the drawn-out words and cadence of a bygone era. Chrétien, when first elected PM in 1993, made a point, as his thencommunications adviser Peter Donolo said, of “staying out of people’s faces.” These days, his snickering about porkbarreling and patronage grants to Liberal ridings seems inyour-face as much as possible. Then, there’s the actions in question: he still believes in the Duplessis-ist notion that you can literally pave the way to election victory with enough well-placed grants and contracts. It’s a reminder of past politics that no one should miss. The Prime Minister has often responded to those who call him out-of-date by saying “politics must be the only business where people say you have too much experience.” Perhaps they were right.