Conventional thinking says that when then-Vice President Richard Nixon debated then-Senator John F. Kennedy, those who watched the debate on television thought Kennedy had “won” while those who listened to it on radio thought Nixon had been the victor. It’s often noted that while Kennedy looked young, vigorous, well-dressed and handsome, Nixon’s crumpled suit, recent weight loss, and perspiring face made for such a visual contrast that Kennedy appeared more presidential in people’s minds. However, if you read the transcript of the Kennedy-Nixon debates, you might be hard-pressed to discover which of the candidates was more qualified and well-prepared.
Appearance matters in public relations and visual media, and no less during presidential debates. In 1976 and 1980, 5’9 Jimmy Carter stood on a step to make him appear the same height as President Gerald Ford and Governor Ronald Reagan, who were both over six feet tall. In 1992, President George H.W. Bush was roundly criticized when the camera caught him checking his watch during a town hall-style debate against Bill Clinton. Al Gore’s constant sighing at George W. Bush’s responses hurt his performance.
While they’ll appear together when Hofstra hosts the first debate September 26th, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump were interviewed separately at a “Commander in Chief Forum” on NBC last week. Trump came under fire after the program for praising Russian President Vladimir Putin, and also his seemingly insensitive answer to the issue of sexual assaults in the military. Conversely, much of the criticism directed at Clinton regarded her appearance; she didn’t smile and may have came across as harsh or even angry. As a result, many pundits believed Trump “won” the forum.
In presidential campaigns and just about everything else, people too often base their opinions on style rather than substance. So here’s a challenge: Read the transcript of the “Commander in Chief Forum” and try not to visualize the candidates’ appearance or style. Review their words for content and substance:
Then, share your opinion. Who”won” the forum based on their words? Why is appearance so important and influential? Does content alone really ever matter? Your thoughts?