If television was Tricky Dick’s death knell the first time around, high-def could be John McCain’s.
Richard Nixon lost the first televised presidential debate in 1960—and maybe the entire election—when he refused to wear makeup as he faced the younger, tanner John F. Kennedy. Heading into the final debate of 2008, McCain is confronting the 21st-century version of Nixon’s old nemesis.
Millions of Americans are watching this year’s debates in HD for the first time, and the pristine picture is decidedly unkind to the indelicacies of age. The phenomenon has been widely discussed; View host Barbara Walters and actor-director Clint Eastwood are cited as just two of HD’s prominent victims. In 1960, surveys taken after the debate found that voters who listened on the radio thought Nixon had won, while those who watched on television overwhelmingly favored Kennedy.
How does a ‘normal 72-year-old’ look next to the 47-year-old Barack Obama, whose graceful style and cool demeanor have already drawn comparisons to Kennedy?
A similar phenomenon may be emerging this year. After both debates, pundits were split on whether McCain, 72, or Barack Obama, 47, came out ahead. But polls gave a decisive victory to Obama.
“It probably could be a factor,” the presidential historian Robert Dallek said of the rise of HDTV. “People don’t pay a lot of attention to the substance of these debates.”
“It’s just not a very forgiving medium,” said Beau Nelson, a celebrity makeup artist in Manhattan whose clients have included Brooke Shields and Blake Lively.
Nelson said Obama presents his own cosmetic challenge for HDTV. Far fewer makeup artists have experience working with African-American skin, which requires different techniques, and Obama has sometimes looked overly made up. But the Illinois senator’s appearance on HD received generally positive reviews from makeup artists we spoke with.
McCain’s biggest challenge is a six-inch scar running down the left side of his face, a remnant of surgery in 2000 to remove a melanoma.
While the scar is prominent in some photographs and clips of the Senate, his campaign has clearly tried to cover it up for the debates. Federal campaign filings show that McCain has paid more than $5,500 to Tifanie White, a top makeup artist who worked on American Idol.
The results are a mixed bag. “You can certainly tell that he has a scar,” said Dr. Robert Brodell, a dermatologist at Northeastern Ohio Universities and a member of the American Academy of Dermatology. “On the other hand, he looks like a normal 72-year-old to me.”
But how does a “normal 72-year-old” look next to the 47-year-old Obama, whose graceful style and cool demeanor have already drawn comparisons to Kennedy?
Makeup artists and skin specialists said McCain’s handlers had done a decent job preparing him for the debates, given his age and history of melanoma. “Most Americans aren’t going to start looking at John McCain and say, ‘Wow, he’s wearing a lot of makeup,” Nelson said.
Sales of HDTVs nationwide have soared just in the two years since the presidential campaign began and even in the nine months since McCain last appeared onstage with his Republican primary opponents, nearly all of whom were closer in age to him than Obama. A full 32 million homes, or 29% of the market, now have TVs that are capable of receiving HD.
The generational gap in presidential debates has been a recurring theme since the Nixon-Kennedy debate. Ronald Reagan dismissed it with a clever joke against Walter Mondale, while George H.W. Bush and Bob Dole stumbled against Bill Clinton a decade later. But none of McCain’s geriatric predecessors had to battle a younger, more dashing opponent under the microscope of high-definition.
And for a candidate already grappling with an electorate yearning for change, those are some perilous pixels.