WHY REAGAN'S MOST SUCCESSFUL
MESSAGE WAS THE MEDIUM OF TV
By Tom Plate
June 8, 2004
LOS ANGELES -- With his gift of
grabby gab, Ronald Reagan was master and commander-in-chief of getting his
message out over any medium. A smooth-as-silk image-manufacturer, whether in
front of a live audience, tape recorder, radio mike or TV camera, his
enormous media talent set the standard not only for U.S. presidential
politics and, perhaps these days, global politics as well.
The medium, as he well appreciated,
was the message, and the message was: I'm better on TV than anyone opposing
His superiority arose not only out
of his experience as an actor. Everyone remembers his famous quip at the
hospital after he had been shot about how he hoped the surgeon on duty would
be a Republican. In good health or bad, the former Hollywood actor was
hardly ever at a loss for a witty word or story. A few months before his
1984 landslide reelection, interviewing him in the Oval Office for the
national magazine that I then edited, I ran out of prepared questions before
the president ran out of time. So, fumbling, I came up with a few on the
spot, including one about his daughter Patti's unexpected declamation that
men and women ought to live together before marriage. The president, licking
his culturally conservative chops, hit that one out of the park. "I only
regret," he said, his head cocked, "that spanking is out of fashion now."
Boom! A few months later, voters awarded him 49 states.
Ever since, it has been
inconceivable that any American politician slow on his feet and only so-so
on TV could govern successfully from the White House. One- term President
George H.W. Bush was actually better at the vision thing than the image
thing; two-term President Bill Clinton was brilliant on TV. Vice President
Al Gore hit the TV screen with all the spark of an aging clam; President
George W. Bush was perceptively better: The result is history. If the
presumptive Democratic presidential nominee doesn't want to be gored (i.e.,
close-called) by a more media-experienced Bush, he should quickly make a
study of Reagan's media style, the way a coach studies opponents' game films
over and over.
Reagan also set the gold standard
for the international media. No Japanese prime minister, with the possible
exception of his '80s contemporary Yasuhiro Nakasone (who, at 86, God bless
him, plans to attend the state funeral for Reagan), could come near it. But
now there is Junichiro Koizumi, arguably the country's first TV prime
minister. What's new on the Japanese political scene? The increasing
importance of TV news.
Until recently, neighboring China
was a media backwater, but President Hu Jintao may prove a potential star,
at least judging from the publicity successes of his foreign tours. As his
nation's media are starting to open up, he kisses babies and even embraces
AIDS victims. This is a better image for China than tanks and protestors.
South Korea's Roh Moo-hyun and
Taiwan's Chen Shui-bian, whatever their deficiencies, still seem fresher
when on the media than their opponents; but the opposite seems the case for
the leaders of Indonesia, Megawati Sukarnoputri, struggling for reelection,
and of Hong Kong, Tung Chee Hwa, struggling to finish out his five-year
term. Both are likable people, but on TV they come across poorly. Gloria
Macapagal Arroyo, the incumbent president of the Philippines, arrived at the
presidential palace with a TV broadcasting background. She succeeded one
former movie actor four years ago and appears, just now, to have narrowly
Thailand's Prime Minister Thaksin
Shinawatra has undoubtedly gone further than almost anyone imagined because
of his blunt "people power" appeal. In Singapore, Prime Minister Goh Chok
Tong, who is to step down soon after more than a decade in power, would
probably be the last to make any special claims to superstar media savvy.
Even so, he generally came across on the Singapore scene as more
down-to-earth than his celebrated, cerebral predecessor and has publicly, if
politely, advised his successor (son of his predecessor, Lee Kuan Yew) to
folks-up the public image.
That's sound advice for any leader
anywhere, as Reagan would have been the first to say.
Such advice certainly might have
helped the recently ousted Vajpayee government, which Indian voters threw
out of office when it appeared aloof from their daily concerns; and it's
certainly not lost on neighboring Pakistan's leader, Pervez Musharraf, who
has all but charmed the international (and a good portion of his domestic)
media out of its pants.
Today's dominant medium is
television, and the message is: You'd better look, sound and act like a
winner on it, or, on the big stage at least, you're politically finished.
Ronald Reagan, two-term media standard-setter, may not have comprehended
nuclear physics, but he figured out that equation early on.