Go to "MASTERS OF THE MATRIX: Kennedy, Nixon, and the Culture of the Image"
January 2, 2004




Tuning In the Presidency
Posted 2003-12-29

This week in the magazine and here online (see The Critics), Louis Menand reviews two new books about Presidential imagemaking: David Lubin’s “Shooting Kennedy: JFK and the Culture of Images” and David Greenberg’s “Nixon’s Shadow: The History of an Image.” Here Menand discusses the two books, and the larger issues of Presidential stagecraft, with The New Yorker’s Ben Greenman.

BEN GREENMAN: Was there ever a time when politics wasn't about imagemaking? Lincoln portrayed himself as a simple country man long after he was an influential lawyer—which was necessary, in part, because of Andrew Jackson's skill with imagemaking. How much did television really change that process?

LOUIS MENAND: Obviously, television added to the degree of exposure Presidential candidates are subject to, and it might be that so much exposure actually makes it harder to project a desired image, since any image put out there now gets immediate and thorough journalistic scrutiny. But an image has always been an ingredient in political life.

Has television changed politics profoundly? Could a President like Taft or F.D.R. be elected today, in the television age? Could Madison, or would he have been too short?

I think it would be hard to argue that any of the pre-television Presidents would not have been elected if forced to be on television, if only because the process has changed so much. Keep in mind that Presidential selection has become much more open and popular-vote driven with the emergence of television.

Have any Presidents since Kennedy matched his ability to provide memorable photographic images of himself?

I don't think that electoral success is a function of televisual charisma. Clinton was good on television but also charismatic in person. Neither Bush is good on television—they come across as squinty and whiny. They are reported to be (more or less) charming in person. It’s nice if you take a good photograph, but I don’t think that anyone has been elected solely for that reason.

In his book, David Lubin says that the Kennedys didn't stage-manage their photo ops to any great degree. But did they give photographers access in ways that previous Presidents hadn’t?

The Kennedys were remarkably (or so it feels today) confident of their ability to come across well when they gave photographers enormous access. The finest examples of this are the documentaries made by Robert Drew of the Kennedy White House, particularly the movie about the forced integration of the University of Alabama. Drew was allowed to film John and Bobby Kennedy and their associates debating how to handle George Wallace in a very frank way. Bobby Kennedy was shown having breakfast with his kids. It is hard to imagine a politician in office allowing that kind of access today. And you know what? They came across great.

What about President Bush? In recent months, we’ve seen the flight deck, the turkey in Iraq, and so forth. Does he fall under the natural-imagemaker category or under the dogged Nixonian-imagemaker category?

To me, all of Bush’s images have “contrivance” written all over them. He seems to be a man who does what his handlers instruct him to do. That may be unfair to what actually happens, but that’s the image he unintentionally projects.

The problem with Bush isn’t the belt buckle and the pickup truck and all that. The problem is that he ran as one kind of conservative and is now governing like another kind. His problem is Nixon’s: he and his Administration are not transparent. They say one thing and do another.

What about image blunders—Dukakis in the tank, for example? Does David Greenberg deal with this kind of image blindness in his book?

Greenberg is interested mostly in how Nixon was perceived by others, rather than in how he chose to project himself. A good book on the latter subject is Richard Reeves’s “President Nixon: Alone in the White House.” Reeves shows that Nixon obsessively wrote memos to himself about the image he wanted to project—“joy” was one of the recurring themes.

In your piece, you mention how the Kennedy-Nixon debates may have been evidence not of the distorting power of TV but of the distorting power of radio. Is there another distinction beyond radio-TV? Does it, or will it, matter how candidates use entertainment media—Clinton on “Arsenio,” for instance—or the Internet?

Politicians adapt to communications technology. I don’t think we’re yet at the stage where the ability to “wear well” on TV or other entertainment media will make all the difference. What people like Ronald Reagan and Arnold Schwarzenegger get from TV and movie exposure is name recognition, and a kind of instant credibility that their opponents have to manufacture in other ways. It’s like having more money, though—it doesn’t present their opponents with an insurmountable obstacle.

It has been said that the leadership styles of Kennedy and Nixon were based on two types of superiority: contempt and resentment. Kennedy was contemptuous, in that he naturally assumed he was better than others, and Nixon was resentful, always worrying that others thought they were better than he was. Do their imagemaking styles accord with this distinction?

In “The Making of the President 1960,” Theodore White noted that in their first TV debate Kennedy addressed the nation but Nixon addressed Kennedy. Nixon answered questions by arguing with what Kennedy had said, but Kennedy ignored Nixon. Clinton used to do the same thing, incidentally. The point about Nixon, of course, was that he was obsessed, his whole career, with the Kennedys. Image envy was a big part of it.

Will there ever be a politician-based reality-TV show?

Yes.