Thursday, February 22, 2007

"The Light and the Heat"

Eleanor Clift (Newsweek):
Clinton and Obama are generating an enthusiasm among Democrats not seen since Kennedy was in the White House. Just ask JFK’s TV adviser.

Barack Obama’s likely entrance into the presidential race has a lot of people smiling, among them Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean. No, it’s not because of tensions with the Clintons, whose apparatchik, James Carville, tried to edge Dean out of his job. The chairman is happy because Obama is that rare politician who can draw out the youth vote, which Democrats have been winning lately. Dean hopes Obama can help drive up the numbers in ’08.
Dean illustrates the point with his own son, a 20-year-old who hates politics and politicians—but wanted Obama’s books for Christmas, and will listen to whatever that particular politician has to say. From Dean’s perspective as someone charged with rallying the troops to take back the White House, Obama is good for the party, good for the country and good for politics in general. Regardless of whether he wins the prize this time, Obama has rekindled the kind of excitement Democrats have yearned for ever since John F. Kennedy broke through onto the national stage more than 40 years ago.

Television was in its infancy then; the equivalent today is the Internet, where Obama chose to announce the formation of an exploratory committee to run for president. The candidate most at home with the most powerful tool of communication has an advantage. Kennedy’s television adviser in 1960, Bill Wilson, was light years ahead of the competition when he negotiated the terms of the first-ever presidential debate between Kennedy and Richard Nixon. Real men didn’t do makeup in those days, but Wilson knew what the hot klieg lights could do, and he ran out to a drugstore to buy Max Factor for JFK. All the Nixon team had is a white shaving stick. It created lines on his cheeks when he began to sweat, which he did profusely.

Kennedy popped off the screen like a young Adonis, while Nixon looked gray and tired, images that transformed a race that the vastly more experienced Nixon might otherwise have won against the junior senator from Massachusetts.

“When I first saw the pictures in the control room, I thought one looked same old, same old, and the other guy looked great and new,” Wilson recalled to NEWSWEEK. Another touch that made the difference was the simple lectern, with a single pole down the center, so television viewers could see each candidate’s entire body. Kennedy had a physical grace about him, while Nixon was always shifting his weight, a habit aggravated by a bad knee. After the first debate, the Nixon team insisted on the big, clunky lectern their candidate could hide behind, but the damage had been done. Ninety million people watched that debate, a huge number, mostly because of Kennedy.

If anybody can rival the excitement of Camelot, it’s Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, in Wilson’s view. His wife, Melody Miller, who worked for JFK and recently retired as a top staffer to Sen. Ted Kennedy, thinks it’s “too big a lift” to elect the first woman and the first black on the same ticket. Wilson dismisses her reservations as Beltway thinking. “When you get out there with the people who go to work every day and complain about why this or that isn’t working, and you look at what they’re attracted to, these are the Oprah people. They’re attracted by buzz. A Hillary and Obama ticket has real drama and celebrity, and in this particular culture nowadays, that overrides so much.” After eight years in the White House and six in the Senate, Clinton is “exceedingly well trained for the job,” and she’d be sharing the ticket with “a man we all think would be a very good president, except he doesn’t know anything—and in four years he’ll know a lot.”

Asked if the two can avoid killing each other during the primaries, Wilson says: “They’re both too damn smart, and Obama is smart enough to know he’s not ready to be president. But he’s not ready to give up on the hype.”

Clinton’s history-making stature as a candidate has been diluted by something newer. Obama is only the third black elected to the Senate since Reconstruction. A campaign that would have been an insurgency, a woman breaking into the boys’ club, has been recast as the establishment favorite. That’s a problem, especially in New Hampshire, where voters delight in overturning the frontrunner. The only way this race could revert to the one Clinton had expected is if Obama turns out to be a shooting star. If he makes mistakes, or if the specifics he puts forward fall short of his rhetoric, he could lose altitude quickly. The reviews of his book, “The Audacity of Hope,” point out how safe he plays it. “It’s the world’s longest and greatest stump speech,” says William Galston, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, who has yet to take sides in the race. “But he can’t get away with that much longer, which makes the next nine months so interesting.”
Cross-posted at

No comments: