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It’s still all about how they look on TV

TELEVISION CRITIC

Colin Powell may have provided the swing-vote endorsement, but if Sen. Barack Obama should find himself delivering a victory speech on Nov. 4, he might want to include a shout-out to Philo Farnsworth and Vladimir Zworykin, two of the men most commonly considered the founding fathers of television.

Not since the Kennedy-Nixon race has television played such a significant role in a presidential election. The “Saturday Night Live” skewerings, the David Letterman-John McCain feud, the political meltdowns on “The View,” the Gov. Sarah Palin interviews, the Joe the Plumber interviews, Obama’s World Series lead-in (if there’s a Game 6) and, of course, the debates. Even ancillary players experienced what television, augmented by 24-hour news stations and the eternal playback feature of the Internet, has become: Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) found herself pleading for folks to stop sending money to her opponent after she accused Obama of being anti-American on MSNBC’s “Hardball.”

This year’s race has, at times, felt like it was as much about the media as about the candidates -- the Chris Matthews-Keith Olbermann convention coverage meltdown, Sen. McCain canceling on “Larry King Live” after CNN’s Campbell Brown pushed too hard about the choice of Palin, etc. So it became easy to think that the real power lay with the relentless nature of the 24-hour news cycle and our obsession with video-heavy websites such as Politico and the Huffington Post.

But without television, YouTube would have much less to say about this election. Television is a very particular filter with a very specific power, and if that power was ever in doubt, all one had to do was watch the third presidential debate, preferably on a station utilizing a split screen. Obama looked so calm, cool and collected you half expected him to break into the opening strains of “Summer Wind.” Meanwhile, McCain spluttered, blinked and twitched, possessed by a cacophony of physical tics that were, by turns, frightening and laughable. Yet seconds after the debate ended, even liberal pundits conceded that McCain had made some good points, perhaps a direct hit or two.

And then the poll results poured in, giving the night’s victory overwhelmingly to Obama.

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Of course, policy has a lot to do with it. In a time of economic crisis, McCain’s fondness for deregulation and his ties to the Bush administration aren’t doing him any favors. But if the main purpose of the televised debate is to allow viewers to decide who looks more presidential, there was no contest -- because Obama wins the television race in every category, every time.

He is, after all, a product of television. Few had even heard of him when he took the stage at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. But by the end of his speech, he was all anyone was talking about. And not because he delivered some political oxygen to the muggy atmosphere of the convention crowd but because he reached through the cameras to what was by then an almost stupefied television audience (it was not a very energetic convention, if you will recall) and woke them up.

Unlike McCain, who is pale, stocky and stiff in his movements (in part due to his war injuries), Obama is physically suited for television. He is tall and slim, which means he looks good in a suit. He is one of the few heterosexual American men who can appear comfortable while sitting on a stool. He has the wide, bright smile we demand of our movie stars, and if his head isn’t disproportionate enough to his body to guarantee him a role in the next “Ocean’s Eleven” sequel, well, the ears help.

If you think this is all silly and unimportant, then you haven’t been paying much attention to American culture. The Obama campaign knows its strengths enough to make the extraordinary purchase of the half-hour leading up to a World Series game. You do not do that unless you know your man owns the medium.

McCain’s advisors, well, if one of them had been able to explain to him the difference between passion and pique, if one of them had been able to signal to him during that third debate to stop with the snorting and the blinking already, those poll results would probably have been a lot closer.

But the McCain campaign hasn’t been very smart about television in general. In fact, you have to wonder if any staffers actually watch it at all. As Bachmann and vice presidential candidate Palin have lately discovered, the term “anti-American” doesn’t play so well on TV -- the McCarthy hearings were televised too. Palin, like Obama, looks darn good on camera, and her acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention last month made everyone stand up and take notice. But since then the closest she has come to owning the medium was when she good-naturedly chair-danced along to a rap song satirizing her candidacy on “Saturday Night Live.” Certainly her few televised interviews have been less than successful.

And you do have to wonder: Was there no YouTube-savvy advisor who, upon seeing the governor in the flesh, thought to point out her startling resemblance to that gifted and very high-profile Tina Fey? Surely the party of Swiftboaters and Willie Horton could have figured out a way to head that one off at the pass. But they seem to have been too busy shoving a big old bushel over their own light. As political reporters of every stripe have been lamenting ad nauseam, the old John McCain -- the guy who swore a bit and smiled a lot, who announced his candidacy on “Late Show With David Letterman” and hosted “Saturday Night Live,” who with a grin admitted to a then-admiring Jon Stewart that by cozying up with the Rev. Jerry Falwell he was indeed going over to “the crazy base” -- is gone. And in his place is an increasingly miserable-seeming, obviously angry man who no one, apparently, is even trying to loosen up.

Except Letterman. In the last few weeks, the host rained a relentless barrage of criticism down on McCain for not only backing out of his show at the last minute with the excuse that he was suspending his campaign to fly to Washington, but also for lying about it. (McCain actually stayed in New York that night where he, among other things, gave an interview to Katie Couric.)

Admirably, McCain went back on Letterman’s show (even taking a helicopter to ensure he wouldn’t be late). He graciously made his apologies, hung on to his good humor as Letterman hammered him about Palin and the campaign, and if he didn’t offer much but standard-issue campaign-speak in response, he didn’t get up and stomp off either.

But then Letterman knows how to deliver great TV. Maybe next time around he should host the debates.

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mary.mcnamara@latimes.com


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