MICHAEL WOLSEY: Don’t throw red herrings or upset the apple tart
In 1960, when television was quite new and televised debates unheard of, Richard Nixon and John F Kennedy went head-to-head in front of the cameras.
Nixon had scant regard for the new medium and his preparations were poor. He refused advice on what to wear and, for the first of four debates, declined to use makeup, which he regarded as unmanly.
The Republican candidate was unfamiliar with camera technique and allowed his eyes to wander across the studio, giving him a shifty appearance.
The lack of makeup made him look unshaven and exposed blotches on his skin caused by a recent illness. He was seen to be sweating under the studio lights.
Kennedy was young, handsome and naturally articulate. The makeup artist helped give him a bronzed, healthy look and his wardrobe advisers struck the perfect balance between fashionable and presidential.
The debates were also broadcast on radio where many of the relatively small audience thought Nixon had won. But Kennedy impressed the much bigger television audience and went on to be the 35th president of the United States.
The Nixon-Kennedy clashes gave televised debates a mystique which has persisted for 60 years. It is unjustified.
There is no proof that the debates secured the presidency for Kennedy and not a scrap of evidence that any other debate has ever won an election for any candidate, anywhere.
For Irish politicians, too sharp a performance may even be a drawback, for we don’t seem to like our leaders to be trendsetters, orators, or even particularly good with words.
The most articulate Taoiseach of the past 40 years was Garret FitzGerald. But he was a statistician who often got his facts jumbled and was easily sidetracked into rambling discourses, full of figures and irrelevant comparisons.
Charles Haughey had a certain steely authority but he was touchy and liable to snap at interviewers and opponents who engaged him in debate. He didn’t much favour debating, in any case.
John Bruton had all the charisma of a wooden block and Albert Reynolds, a most able Taoiseach, rarely opened his mouth without putting his foot in it, getting names wrong and misrepresenting his own policies.
In straight electoral terms, Bertie Ahern was the most successful Taoiseach, but he was a disaster when it came to addressing the public. He had the fashion instincts of a circus clown and his utterances were often a comical stream of consciousness, splattered with unfinished sentences, mixed metaphors and bizarre malapropisms – as when he warned against ‘upsetting the apple tart’ and devious activities conducted by ‘smoke and daggers’.
Enda Kenny, another very successful Taoiseach, was a poor debater, both in the Dáil and on TV. It did him no harm at all.
What really harmed Nixon in that 1960 debate was his lack of understanding of the new medium of television, how it worked and how important it could be.
His lack of television awareness may not have destroyed his election chances but it certainly diminished them.
Today television is being overtaken in importance by the new social media and a candidate who underestimates its power or fails to understand it will suffer just as Nixon did back then.
For those party leaders still worried about television debates, my advice is relax, be yourself, and remember this other piece of advice from Bertie Ahern: “I don’t think it helps people to start throwing white elephants and red herrings at each other.”