BROOKE GLADSTONE: Welcome back to On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield. This weekend we witness not just the inauguration of a president but the installation of a new TV companion, one who will join us in our living rooms and bedrooms and talk amiably while we unwrap our takeout dinners and polish off a few cold ones in front of the tube.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:The wisdom of the focus groups televised incessantly during the campaign was simply this: it is personality, not character that counts in 21st Century politicians, and not just personality but a specific kind of personality that can be summed up in a single word: "likability." Likability that comes across on the small screen. The great presidents -- Washington, Lincoln, FDR -- would have transcended any challenge the television age through up. But less charismatic visionaries would have washed out, says Brown University professor Darrell West.
PROF. DARRELL WEST: I think television has changed the types of qualities that we come to expect from our presidents. You can't be boring any more, especially in an era of twenty four hour news cycles.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: No election for Coolidge, then.
PROF. DARRELL WEST: I think certain individuals, Calvin Coolidge, John Tyler, Chester Arthur need no longer apply f-- to be president.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:A successful administration has become in part a question of lighting. The glare casts the dullard in deeper shadow while it overheats the zealot.
PROF. DARRELL WEST: Television does discourage the rabble rousers. You know, if a candidate or a leader is going to stand up and wave the arms and be very emotional, television really makes the person look like a maniac. Americans like people who are just like themselves, so that almost automatically selects out against figures who are larger than life.
GEORGE W. BUSH: You, you know it's hard to make people love one another. [LAUGHS] I wish I knew the law, cause I'd darn sure sign it.
PROF. ROBERT DALLEK: Why is someone like George W. Bush a successful politician?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Author and historian Robert Dallek teaches at Boston University.
PROF. ROBERT DALLEK: In part because he plays the Everyman, and the way - even w-- the way he speaks and prides himself on the idea that - well he hasn't read many books - he caters to the--unintellectual, the anti-intellectual, and this has a kind of resonance!
BROOKE GLADSTONE:That's not how it used to be. Dallek says presidents were always engaged in image-making, but the lack of electronic media kept the candidates at a safe distance.
PROF. ROBERT DALLEK: Of course you couldn't communicate the personality all that readily in the, in the 19th Century except through a kind of myth-making. George Washington was a military hero. Thomas Jefferson was a man of extraordinary intellect. Madison wrote the Constitution! These were the images that came across to people. But now you have mass communication. You have mass media.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And even in the early age of electronic communications presidents could still control when and where they were seen and heard.
PROF. ROBERT DALLEK:Franklin Roosevelt was very interesting in this regard. He was pressed by his cabinet officers very hard to go on the radio and give more Fireside Chats, and he refused because he was afraid of becoming a redundancy.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:But now redundancy is the order of the day. We need a candidate that wears well. We liked Ike, but would we feel comfortable with him in our rec room?
DWIGHT D. EISENHOWER: Ladies and gentlemen, you have summoned me on behalf of millions of your fellow Americans to lead a great crusade for freedom in America and freedom in the world.
PROF. ROBERT DALLEK: We "like Ike" because he was a heroic figure. He catered to our impulses about presidents and the mythology that they are great men; that they can work miracles.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:So what do we know in 2001? We know that miracle-makers make us nervous; that smaller, cooler customers are more likely to buy our affections. We know that passion comes off as pathology. And we know we don't vote for people who make us feel stupid or selfish or sad. But still we believe - we gotta believe - we haven't been entirely duped by the makeup and the power tie and the judicious use of hair gel.
PROF. DARRELL WEST: We can certainly learn a lot from television about their personal qualities.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Political scientist Darrell West.
PROF. DARRELL WEST: But that's not necessarily the same as learning who they are in their soul, their deep qualities that may only emerge slowly over a long period of time.
JOHN F. KENNEDY: We stand today on the edge of a New Frontier. The frontier of the 1960s. Be strong and of good courage. Be not afraid. Neither be dismayed. For courage, not complacency is our need today--
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Ah! I don't know, Mr. President. That's asking a lot!
GEORGE W. BUSH: We all make mistakes. I've been known to mangle a syl-LA-ble or two myself, you know? [LAUGHTER]