Wednesday, December 10, 2008


The political pundits have been busy casting this presidential election as a “transformative political event,” which pitted the traditional old-style campaign of John McCain against the new, interactive campaign of Barack Obama. This sea-change election, while historic from a variety of perspectives, is one that was caused in great part by the use of new media. But it wasn’t the first time in our history that new media elected a president and allowed him to communicate directly with the people.

In 1932 Franklin Roosevelt, the inexperienced Governor of New York, as his Republican opponents characterized him, ran against incumbent Herbert Hoover who promised America that his experience could lead the country through those perilous times. Though during his tenure as Commerce Secretary Hoover had championed the growth and use of radio, he was outmaneuvered on the airwaves by his opponent who understood the importance of the catchy phrase—the sound-bite—and was able to connect to the voters who in the end opted for change over the status-quo. Roosevelt then went on to use radio to speak directly to the public, to chat with them in simple, heartfelt words that the audience received unfiltered and unadulterated by the kind of editing and commentary that is pervasive today. Those talks and FDR’s other national speeches of note—his inaugural address and his speech on the day after Pearl Harbor—are legendary and have come down to us as perfect examples of how well-delivered messages can move, or reassure, an entire nation.

Twenty-eight years later, another Democrat labeled as inexperienced, ran against an older Republican standard bearer. This time, it was Kennedy’s mastery of the newly important medium of television that probably determined the outcome of the 1960 election. As Roosevelt had been a spectacular orator, Kennedy was photogenic and looked presidential on the small screen. The four Kennedy-Nixon debates may have doomed the Republican candidate as he sweated under the hot lights. Once elected, Kennedy established television’s place as part of the presidential arsenal. He understood the connection between his actions and literally being able to show Americans a vibrant image of the future he saw. Kennedy looked into the camera’s lens and spoke to millions just as he would speak with any one individual. It made the presidency more intimately personal. Ironically the important connection between viewers and the president was never clearer than during the funeral for the slain president which marked the tragic end to the first televised presidency.

When Ronald Reagan, another candidate accused of being inexperienced, ran in 1980 he was campaigning just as a new form of news medium was becoming part of the American home. 1980 was the year during which CNN—the first of the 24/7 cable news networks—made its debut, changing the news cycle from once every 24 hours to news all the time, whenever and wherever it was being made. Reagan was the perfect candidate whose vision of “The city on the hill” was captured and repeatedly replayed on cable TV. He then became the ideal president for a world with this new kind of news medium; he was the consummate performer, the actor who delivered well-rehearsed lines with feeling, who knew the cameras were always on him and that the actions of the nation were being instantly reported around the clock and around the world. Standing before the Berlin Wall, his phrase “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall,” and the accompanying visual image of the wall, resonated with people around the world. And when he spoke to the families of the lost Challenger astronauts, Reagan expressed the grief of an entire nation. His visible sorrow and the connectivity, the two-way information street made possible by the constant nature of cable TV news, made the Reagan presidency a message-delivery success.

Now, twenty-eight years after Ronald Reagan showed how a political figure could and should use the 24/7 nature of cable news to win, Barack Obama and his campaign have once again redefined how media and politics can mesh seamlessly. Whether it was fundraising over the internet, or texting important information to cell phones, the Obama campaign brilliantly connected with voters. In essence, they took the idea of speaking directly with your audience that Roosevelt, Kennedy, and Reagan all used and improved, to a whole new level; Obama was speaking one-on-one to voters. This very model of a modern major communicator should serve President Obama well, for like his predecessors as communicators-in-chief did, he will use the latest modern marvel to speak to the nation one person at a time. However, the one constant that has existed since Roosevelt mastered radio, is that regardless of the newness of the medium, the speaker needs the appropriate words and he must know how to deliver those lines if he is going not only to lead, but be able to get a nation to follow.

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