THE CANDIDATE’S ULTIMATE MEDIA TEST
The media coverage of the recent GOP debate in Michigan was predictable. “Romney and Giuliani Spar.” “Fireworks over taxes.” “Thompson appears nervous at first.” All the appropriate friction points that we’ve come to expect. Political debates have always been about the friction inherent in the pressing issues of the day. Lincoln and Douglas mixing it up over slavery. Kennedy-Nixon on Quemoy & Matsu off the China coast. Bush-Kerry on Iraq. The debate paradigm shifted dramatically when TV came along. Candidates had to begin showing their lighter side to the new medium. And then, the medium became the message. Kennedy goes on the Jack Parr Show. Nixon does “Laugh-In. Clinton goofs with Arsinio Hall. Bush and Oprah quip. In the Michigan debate, the lighter sides were fairly glowing off some of these guys. Romney: “These debates are like a Law and Order. Large cast, they go on forever and Fred Thompson shows up at the end.” Giuliani: “ If we do HillaryCare or socialized medicine, Canadians will have no place to go to get healthcare.” Bada boom.
So here’s the differentiating question and a suggestion: Are these folks showing spontaneous humor, or are they delivering carefully crafted lines from professional writers. Knowing which one might give evidence as to whether a candidate can think on his, or her, feet, give a peek into personality and show how well they handle unpredictable friction moments. Wouldn’t it be helpful to experience these potential leaders of the free-world in unscripted situations? Isn’t that what happens in the real world? Ronald Reagan’s “Honey, I forgot to duck” quip to Nancy when he was shot was a game changer for him and the country. It was the moment Americans got a real peak into the man’s personality in the face of real life-and-death friction. And the polls reflected it. Reading lines on Saturday Night Live or chatting with the late-night comedians is now considered standard and expected of our candidates. Not many curve balls. Scripted funny lines are usually available. Now, there is a new test for these candidates, a compelling differentiator and its name is Comedy Central. Here’s the suggestion. Each candidate is required to do The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. Sure, they can come in with scripted lines, but Stewart’s in-the-moment comedic style demands a candidate to respond in kind, to think on his/her feet. Not easy. McCain has been on 14 times and handles it well. Ditto Obama. Having done Stewart, candidates must then face the ultimate media test: the mind-bending Colbert Report. If they can handle Stephen Colbert with grace and humor, they can handle Bill O’Reilly, Keith Olberman, Harry Reed or John Boehner. But doing the Colbert Report is tricky. Colbert is a twist, on a-twist, on a twist. A character inside a character pretending to be a character. You never know what might come out of his mouth. Just like Senate, Congress and world leaders. But candidates have to know what they’re getting into with Colbert. If not, they could end up like the Gridiron audience two years ago when the all looked stunned and confused when Colbert hosted. Not the best reaction for a Presidential candidate. When Kennedy went on The Parr Show the new TV medium became the message. And that was the norm until now. With these two innovating Comedy Central Shows, how a candidate responds is now the message. Wouldn’t that be the definitive media challenge?