Thursday, October 18, 2007

Up Close and Personal

In an amusing New York Times piece today, former talk show host Dick Cavett describes spotting Richard Nixon at a Montauk restaurant many years ago, where the deposed president was dining with his daughter, Julie. Cavett actually grabbed a couple of menus and approached Nixon pretending to be a waiter, which prank Nixon suffered through with little response.
The whole time, however, Cavett was transfixed by Nixon’s famous ski slope-shaped nose, which Cavett describes as being as wide as "your first two fingers.” Apparently many people had this reaction to Nixon when seeing him for the first time close up—his proboscis was a thing of wonder, although on television it did not quite come across in such a striking fashion.
Television is wonderful (here I should hasten to thank Meg Oliver and the CBS “Up to the Minute” crew who were kind enough to have me on their show this morning talking about my book) but it mutes physicality, which often reveals character clues. I remember seeing Teddy Kennedy for the first time in person somewhere in New York in the 1970s and being struck by how brick-red his face was. Even earlier, working for Hubert Humphrey’s 1968 campaign while still a high school student in Detroit, I remember thinking that, in person, Humphrey was not nearly as grandmotherly or doughy looking as he came across on television—an altogether more forceful personality.
The advent of mass media (radio) in the 1920s changed presidential campaigning entirely. Now you didn’t have to show up at a rally to see your candidate; you could stay home and listen to him on the radio. This is one of the reasons why, in 1928, a very wooden Herbert Hoover—so dreadfully without personality that his handlers planted articles in newspapers with such titles as “That Man Hoover—He’s Human!”—was able to beat the effervescent New York Governor Al Smith. Hoover, on the radio, sounded great. But Al, waving his arms around, banging into the old-fashioned “pie” mike, saying “radeeo” for radio, and “foist” for first, sounded like a crazy guy, or a vaudevillian.
There is no substitute for seeing your candidate in person, which is what crowds in Iowa and New Hampshire get to do—fully one-quarter of Iowans, according to a recent poll, have actually pressed the flesh of the contenders vying for their vote. Would that we all could do the same. It must have been great, back in 1908, say, to see William Howard Taft and his running mate, James “Sunny Jim” Sherman on the same platform together—Taft weighed 330 pounds and Sherman 200, making them, pound for pound, the heaviest presidential ticket in history. Or to watch Samuel Tilden, the acerbic and hypochondriacal Democrat vying against Rutherford B. Hayes in the 1876 slugfest, try to kiss a baby—Tilden apparently scrunched up his face as if he had just eaten a lemon whenever presented with one of the little darlings. No sanitizing wipes then, of course.
Well, in the global village, television and the internet rule. But if you get a chance—go out and take a gander at some of your candidates. That little wisp of hair that sometimes sticks out from the side of Hillary’s coif may contain revelations.

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