Marshall McLuhan was an influential communications theorist who wrote that, in the 1960 presidential campaign, Richard Nixon did not play well in televised debates, because he was a "hot" personality in a cool new medium. Nixon's discomfort and sweaty upper lip made him look untrustworthy and unsteady.
By contrast, John F. Kennedy won debates because he was "cool." He projected a calm confidence, wit and youthful vigor. When he took the oath of office on a bitterly cold January day, he didn't wear a hat. In the '60s, cool guys didn't do hats.
After unremarkable stints in the U.S. Senate, Kennedy and Obama decided to run for president. Nixon and Romney lost their first tries and retooled. The "new Nixon" re-emerged, while Romney got religion on several key social issues. Obama's campaign caught fire in January 2008 when JFK's daughter Caroline endorsed him.
In McLuhan's terms, Obama is the cool leader, seemingly unrattled by the world's problems. (Perhaps to a fault, some would say.) His poise during the economy's free fall in 2008 stood in sharp contrast to John McCain's obvious unease.
President Obama's coolest moment came the night of May 1, 2011. Without a hint of anxiety at the White House correspondents dinner, he made well-received wisecracks, mostly about Donald Trump in the audience. He then hurried back to the White House to watch the attack on Osama bin Laden's compound that he had ordered earlier. How cool was that?
He sang Al Green's "Let's Stay Together" in tune and in front of Green at the Apollo Theater in Harlem. The crowd loved his falsetto "I-I-I-I'm sooo in love with you." People all over the country began using it as a ring tone on their phones, and sales of the song jumped almost 500 percent overnight.
A Boston radio host played Obama's pitch-perfect riff followed by Romney's cringe-inducing version of "America the Beautiful." The DJ abruptly declared the race over. Even Fox News morning hosts begged their crew to stop playing Romney's ear-damaging rendition.
Romney made a quiet pilgrimage to Fox News boss Roger Ailes, who got his start in politics advising Nixon on performing on televison. Nixon campaigns were street brawls; Romney leaves the dirty work to his super PAC.
Always dangerous off script, Romney ludicrously praised the height of trees in Michigan, foolishly pretended a waitress in New Hampshire had pinched his butt, and pandered over "cheesy grits" in the South. He declared, "Corporations are people, my friend." He offered a $10,000 bet with one of his GOP opponents. He bragged, "My wife Ann drives a couple of Cadillacs."
Like Nixon, Romney is "hot" on TV and looks uncomfortable out of a business suit. Unlike Nixon, who famously wore black oxfords on the beach, Romney never sweats. This android appearance makes him seem artificial.
Nixon was obsessed with the Kennedys, John and Ted, with whom he jousted on a national health care plan. Romney's political career is defined by Ted Kennedy, first running against him then working with him on the Massachusetts health care plan.
When the presidential seal fell off the front of his podium while he was addressing a large gathering, Obama stopped, looked down and said, "It's alright. You all know who I am." That's the point, we know who he is. He's not an out-of-touch billionaire with four homes and money stashed in a Swiss bank account and trust funds and investments hidden in tax havens like Bermuda and the Cayman Islands. Nixon resented wealth, Romney embodies it.
The president's personal favorability remains relatively high, compared to his job performance ratings. I'm not saying Obama will win because he's cool. Well, a little, maybe. People like Obama and want him to succeed. They don't like Romney; he's just a change. If the economy weren't in bad shape, Obama would be winning by 50 points.
Dan Payne is a Boston-based Democratic analyst who has worked for Democratic candidates around the country; he does political commentary for WBUR radio.
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