Mastering the art of storytelling to drive change.

Can’t do live TV? Good luck winning the presidency

08 / 23 / 2023

There are only two ways to become president in the United States:  

  • Through charisma on camera and making people FEEL. 
  • By default.

I’m talking about for the last 63 years, since the advent of TV in presidential politics. 

In 1960, after the first ever live televised presidential debate, Americans changed their mind about Kennedy. He was no longer looked at as a junior senator. He was perceived as smart, articulate, smooth and INSPIRING. He made people FEEL. Good. 

After Kennedy was assassinated, LBJ was elected — by default. Almost as a memorial. As president, he was domestically one of the most consequential of the last century. And that’s how he got reelected — once. 

Nixon finally got elected by default as well. He was TERRIBLE on television, which is why he lost to Kennedy in the first place — even as a SITTING VICE PRESIDENT. After Nixon lost, he went back to California and ran a losing campaign for governor. But he hung around just long enough to run for president again — and get past Hubert Humphrey who stepped in after LBJ declined to run. Call it luck or call it default. Two sides of the same coin.  

George H.W. Bush, who lost the nomination in ’80 to Reagan because he sucked on TV too — got the default nomination after being Reagan’s VP. He beat Mike Dukakis for the presidency. If you want to know how bad Dukakis was on a camera, you don’t even need to google him. Just look up Jon Lovitz’s SNL impression of him.  

In 1992, even though Bush had an 83% approval rating a year before the election after winning the first Iraq War, he lost reelection. A guy named Bill Clinton. He was a masterful operator and brilliant mind — but that’s not why he won the presidency. Charisma bleeding out of him, and he made people feel. His playing the saxophone on Arsenio is still one of the coolest things I’ve ever see a presidential candidate do live on television. 

Robert Dole ran against Clinton in 1996. I don’t have the words to adequately describe how difficult it was to watch this man on TV. 

Al Gore, whom I wrote a speech for once and who’s incredibly charming in person, can’t talk live as a candidate on TV to save his life. Smart, capable, and terrible on a camera. Same as Hillary Clinton. 

Gore lost to George W. Bush in 2000. That’s the first time the term “who would you like to have a beer with” entered our lexicon. Once again, set aside any opinions you might have about W. — on camera he was LIKABLE. It matters. Ever do sales? If they don’t like you first, they’re hardly listening to what you really need to communicate to them. 

I worked for John Kerry when he ran for president in 2004. I would get his speeches in advance, and some were beautifully written. But the the minute he was speaking them into a camera? Like watching the Titanic try to make a hard turn. He was a good man. He was bad on TV. 

2008. Obama v. Hillary in the primary. No one thought he had a chance. Done. General election v. McCain. Done. Mitt Romney in 2012? Stop it. Done. Folks can make fun of “hope and change” all day — but he made a whole new generation FEEL like something good was possible in our politics. 

Finally, Trump v. Hillary. On the face of it, the mismatch of the century. Any century. But as capable and vastly experienced as she was, Clinton could not do it in front of a crowd or a camera. She made you feel nothing, or worse, disdain. Millions of Trump’s own supporters know he’s a disgusting human being — but they FEEL like he’s “fighting for them.” That’s all it is: Charisma on a camera that communicates something that people care about. 

Joe Biden. Fifty years in office, and he still doesn’t have that charisma I’m talking about. He lost twice before running for president; didn’t even sniff the nomination. He won this time by default — because independents in the swing states were just that disgusted with Trump. 

Don’t get me wrong — it’s not Biden’s fault, nor Hillary’s, nor Romney’s, nor Mondale’s, nor Nixon’s, etc., etc. It’s not EASY to be great on a live camera. Or a prerecorded segment, for that matter. 

It’s a gift. 

I coach lots of folks to be better on-camera. And I did that for plenty of candidates too. And believe me, they can get better. They can IMPROVE. But that’s not the same as having what it takes to communicate live on TV for many months in front of the entire country (world). 

If you want to see this in real time, watch Ron Desantis. He was the bright shining light four months ago — the hope for mainstream Republicans to beat Trump. Governor of a big state who won a commanding victory for reelection. 

But that ain’t the same as running for president. 

Ron Desantis is TERRIBLE on a live camera. He can’t help it. Watch him tonight in the debate. He’s the leader in the polls among the eight guys on stage. They’ll be gunning for him, and he’ll have pre-rehearsed answers that don’t ring true. A big part of it is his personality to begin with. Nixon had this problem also. And when you combine un-likability in real life with poor skills on TV, God help you. 

Watch some clips of people speaking on social media. Watch them a few times. You’ll be able to tell who’s comfortable doing it, and who’s not. It doesn’t matter much in the day-to-day of regular life, even with the ubiquity of social in 2023. 

But in presidential politics — there is nowhere to hide. People can smell a phony or someone who doesn’t seem confident and/or quick on their feel. They can smell them right through the fiber optic circuits delivering the video to us.