What we see is what we get


YOU'D THINK the Republican leadership in Washington would have been wary about the dangers of television. Nearly four decades ago, Richard Nixon, the GOP candidate, lost America's first televised presidential debate -- and lost his first bid for the White House -- because Nixon looked nervous on our black-and-white TV screens.

After President Clinton's televised grand jury testimony was shown to the nation on Monday, many Americans remarked that he handled himself well. After all, the president didn't look nervous -- his skin didn't turn purple (as it is rumored to do when he is in a rage), and his nose didn't remind us of Pinocchio.

Four decades ago, when television was still new to American living rooms, Marshall McLuhan, a Canadian professor of literature, brilliantly warned the world about the ways new information technologies -- principally television -- would change our lives.

In the future, Mr. McLuhan knew, people would read less. But just as in the 16th century printed words had altered the way humans processed information, the new technologies of the 20th century would alter anew the way we absorb information.

In print, Mr. Clinton's testimony to the grand jury is a comic extravaganza, all legalese and double-speak and gobbledygook. Pinocchio with a Yale Law School diploma: "It depends on what (( the meaning of the word 'is' means. If it means is, and never has been, that's one thing. If it means, there is none, that was a completely true statement."

Medium and the message

Watching the president on television, there was the first shock of seeing him harshly lit, looking smaller and less ceremonial than usual. But if the Republicans had hoped to cast light on a president heretofore content to hide behind his lawyers and his secretary, they achieved the opposite effect.

The president, in the harsh TV light, looked calm, like he had nothing to hide. He studied the documents with his granny glasses, resembling a middle-age insurance salesman. And the guy actually drank from a can of Diet Coke. As Mr. McLuhan would say, the Diet Coke was the message.

By a weird twist of TV logic, the legal team of Kenneth Starr assumed the villainous role. Indeed, there was something terrible about their off-camera voices. Disembodied they seemed less than human. It was the dry, flat voice of Orwellian nightmare the viewer heard, the State in pursuit of the Individual.

To the many mono-tonal questions, the president would easily shrug, "I don't remember." The lapse of memory became a human failing, trustworthy even, likable certainly, in the presence of the invisible interlocutor. The newspapers of America, the next day, tried to report on what America saw. Many newspaper front pages displayed a panel of six or eight photos of the president's televised faces. But, in truth, no newspaper could communicate the message that the television screen had delivered.

Nearly 40 years ago, the debate between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon became -- as the television lens saw it -- a debate between earnestness and sophistication, between pale skin and tan. Kennedy wore the tan. He looked easy, cosmopolitan.

Poor Richard Nixon, in a manly burst, refused makeup before the debate; he looked sickly. Then, to make matters worse, he started to sweat. You're not supposed to sweat on television. It means that you're guilty. It means that you are a liar. It means that we can't trust you to become president.

So Kennedy won the debate and went on to win the presidency. Kennedy looked great on television, and we never knew about his Mafia moll or his Marilyn.

No wonder (as Mr. Clinton has often remarked) that young Billy Clinton was so taken by America's first television president. In fact, Mr. Clinton's television performance makes him a true heir to Camelot.

But anyone who troubles to read what the president actually said to the grand jury will inevitably think of Mr. Clinton's similarity to that other party of the first television debate. For the viewer of television, Mr. Clinton may have seemed as smooth as Jack Kennedy; for the reader of the printed word, Mr. Clinton seemed the new Nixon.

Richard Rodriguez, author of "Days of Obligation," writes for Pacific News Service.

Pub Date: 9/25/98

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