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電視形象--里根最成功的一面

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 me.

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 defeated another.

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.

 
 

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