Back in 1984, a single killer line from Ronald Reagan during a live political debate was critical in his securing re-election. When questioned about his age and suitablility therefore to hold office, the 73-year-old responded “I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit for political purposes my opponent’s youth and inexperience.” His opponent conceded afterwards. “I knew he’d got me there. I walked off the stage that night almost certain my campaign was over – and it was.”
Remarkably, all it took was a six o’clock shadow and visible beads of sweat to famously lose Richard Nixon his live debate to John F Kennedy in 1960. Kennedy of course, had deliberately sat outside in the sunshine beforehand to top up his tan.
In the UK we’re just catching up the the Americans, where live political debate has been at the heart of their political system for almost half a decade. But boy what an impact the first live debates over here have had in the run up to the general election.
The three 90-minute political debates held in the past few weeks provided a major U-turn in public opinion of the leaders in the run up to the recent general election. None more so than the very first, which saw rank outsider Liberal Democrat Nick Clegg, for the first time, allign himself firmly in the running.
Experts thought that the key to victory for any of the three men was going to be to answer the questions, use prepared lines, look the part, pay attention to body language and, if possible, demonstrate humour.
David Cameron, who is comfortable in front of the camera, obviously had a natural advantage over Gordon Brown. Brown’s strong line following the first debate about his ‘substance over style’ was a very valid point, however given that so much rides on the visual and performance qualities of a leader, his substance was sadly not going to help Brown in these debates as much as a more exuberant performance would have. It was interesting to see though that a small detail like his stepping off the stage to shake the audience’s hands before his opponents (rather than following protocol and waiting until the end of the applause) was interpreted as a denotation of leadership.
Going back to Cameron, his comfort in front of camera was not necessarily a good thing. It meant that expectations on him were far higher than on the other two. Anything less than an accomplished performance would have brought criticism – which it initially did – whilst even a relatively good performance from Brown could have been deemed a win.
But of course coming off far best was Nick Clegg, who merely being seen with his two adversaries, saw a huge elevation in his status. Who’d have thought we would see the elevation for him that we have. That we’d be here at the end of it all with a final result of Clegg as deputy prime minister. What a difference from just a few weeks ago when he was the last person we’d have expected to gain a seat in the cabinet.
Oh, the beauty of the British political system.
Written by Gemma Carey – Bluewood Training Ltd