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David Westin

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Presidential Debates: What You See Is What You Get

Posted: 10/03/2012 2:59 pm

Now the fun part starts -- at least for those of us in the audience. We're into the quadrennial round of presidential debates. The time when we all get to gather around our television sets (or laptops) and see the two gladiators who would be our next President go one on one dealing with the issues.

But wait a minute. It's also the time when commentators come forward to tell us (with maybe a touch of sad disapproval) that the outcomes of these debates are likely to turn more on the appearance of the candidates than it does on any serious intellectual clash over policies or proposals. We're taken back to the dawn of these television events and told that Nixon won on the radio based on what he said, but lost on television based on how he looked (even though researchers for 25 years have been telling us this is likely just urban legend).

There's something uplifting about saying we should all be focused on the "issues" and not the "personalities." But is that right? I had the question put to me very directly in front of my ABC News colleagues during the 2004 election. At the time, Representative Gephardt was one of several Democratic candidates contending for the nomination that would eventually go to Senator Kerry. We invited him, along with all the other candidates, to informal meetings with ABC News as a way of getting to know them better before we got into the really intense part of campaign coverage.

After introducing Gephardt to the group we'd assembled and exchanging some pleasantries, I said that he probably would like to get right to discussing the issues. Gephardt turned to me and said that he'd be happy to talk about any issues we wanted, but that in his experience (he'd run for President before), the American people didn't decide on their President based on positions on issues. No, he said, it was more like a job interview. The people knew that they couldn't possibly anticipate all that would come across the desk of a President, any more than the candidates could. Instead, the voters looked the candidates in the eye and made a judgment about their character. Were they smart? Were they trustworthy? Did they have common sense? Could they be trusted to handle all the issues - anticipated and otherwise?

It struck me at the time how wise Gephardt's approach was - and the years since have only reinforced that view. It was only one year later that Malcolm Gladwell published "Blink" that brought together some of the research showing how powerful immediate impressions of people can be - and often how valid over time. Humans have, after all, spent thousands of generations developing and relying on instincts about one another based on initial impressions.

But I'm not sure we even need the social scientists to tell us to trust our instincts about whom we want to be our President. After all, aren't some of the very things we judge by appearances - trustworthiness, intelligence, decisiveness, strength - what a President needs when dealing with others (whether world leaders, Members of Congress, or his own staff)?

That's why these televised (and streamed) presidential debates are so important. Sure, there will be plenty of talk about the issues. Everyone (and especially the commentators) will be keeping track of how well the two candidates handle what they say about the important things we face as a country. But all of us will be judging the two men every bit as much on what they're communicating to us about themselves as people.

I don't know whether those who only heard the Nixon-Kennedy debates and those who saw them on TV really did have different views on who "won." But if those who got to see Mr. Nixon formed an impression that he was intelligent, experienced, but untrustworthy, how many of us today think they got it wrong?

 
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