Could Grover Cleveland be elected president today? I often use this question in my classes to begin discussions of the images of politicians as portrayed in the media. While TV doesn’t forgive the out-of-the-ordinary, a candidate can use the structural biases of that medium to overcome, say, baldness as Warren Tolman is doing in Massachusetts. He’s running a series of “Bald is Beautiful” ads on TV as a way to fight his status as underdog. I found this interesting:
“He devised the idea for the television ads after a half-dozen seniors came up and rubbed his head for luck at a picnic in Worcester. People on the campaign trail recognize Tolman as the ‘Bald is Beautiful’ guy, and reporters and columnists have picked up on the theme. ‘I’ve already won. I’m cutting through,’ Tolman said. ‘People like to smile. It makes it memorable.’ Susan Michelman, a University of Kentucky professor and expert on the social meanings of appearance, said Tolman’s proudly polished pate could attract voters who appreciate his forthrightness, unlike, say, a candidate who uses a “comb-over” to hide what they don’t have. ‘There’s a kind of honesty about doing that,’ she said.’
Tolman is being smart by using TV, and it’s need for drama and entertainment, to his best advantage. Notice his evaluation of the effort. He has “already won” in the sense that an underdog is getting attention, i.e. “cutting through.” To burst into the consciousness of Americans through television is to cut through the fog of anonymity–to arrive. But, should voters be judging him for his ability to cut through and appear honest (as Dr. Michelman suggests they’re doing) or the merits of his proposals and political positions? In Cleveland’s age, this was a simpler dichotomy. Not so today.