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Who has the telegenic edge?

Sunday, November 09, 2003

Compiled by Mackenzie Carpenter.

We asked five current and former professional consultants familiar with the art and craft of being telegenic to critique the nine Democratic presidential candidates.

The commentators are: Joe Rovitto, a news consultant based in Pittsburgh and former news director of WTAE-TV and consultant to KDKA; Tom Julian, a fashion consultant based in Los Angeles; Paul Begala, former Democratic political consultant who now co-hosts CNN's "Crossfire"; John Brabender, a Republican political consultant based in Pittsburgh; and Alan Schroeder, author of the 2000 book, "Presidential Debates: 40 Years of High-Risk TV."

Carol Moseley Braun

Brabender: She actually has a very strong stage presence. She is the only one of the bunch who consistently comes across as friendly.

Schroeder: She's very telegenic. She has really nice energy in her face. Her smile jumps out at me every time. That's a really effective technique, it's very inclusive, she does a really good job projecting that. She's heavy-set, but you don't notice that in the debates, since they've mostly been standing behind podiums, so the body differences aren't that noticeable. Her suit in the Phoenix debate was bright red, but in general you want to go conservative. This is not the place to try to be Cher.

Julian: Braun has a strong camera appeal, emotionally. She's been wearing simple suits in strong colors, a good choice to stand out from the men. Maybe she's taking cues from Hillary with the open neckline and deco buttons.

Rovitto: That she's female is a strike against her. She's going to have a tough time, and on top of that, she's a minority, so some people will be against her no matter what. But if you watch her, you get the sense of a warm, caring person. She comes across as a really regular person.

Begala: She smiles more than anybody else, and that matters a lot. She lights up the room. It is just wonderful. I think she's quite good on television. She's relaxed, she's charming, optimistic. Smiles are important, if people are going to let you into their living rooms every doggone day for four years.

Wesley Clark

Schroeder: His lack of experience shows. He's not commanding the physical space well yet. He might learn it; he's not terrible at it. He doesn't have a very fluid presence on camera yet. It's sort of unfair to compare him to guys who have done this a lot longer. But he's doing better. He was more animated in the most recent debate and gestured more.

Rovitto: He looks very strong on television. He's got the mature face, the military bearing, the graying hair. All of those things play to his benefit.

Julian: Clark's ties are too long. He's using his hands to express more emotion than his face. I'm not sure, but in some photos his shirt looks too big -- like there's a gap on the right side. He is a classic dresser.

Brabender: He seems to come across as somewhat unsure of himself, but that is likely to change over time. This is obviously new to him and he seems to occasionally get caught in the pageantry of it all. I think he has the best chance of actually throwing a punch during a debate.

Paul Begala: You look at Wes Clark, you'd think he was tall, but he's about 5-8, 5-9. He may be a little cool for the camera. In a perfect world, you'd clone Dean and Clark together.

Howard Dean

John Brabender: Dean is probably the only Democratic presidential candidate that comes across as likable and still maintains a presidential presence. He also seems very believable and sincere, and people see that quickly.

Joe Rovitto: Next to Kerry, I think Dean is the most telegenic. He's warm, whereas someone like Wesley Clark is cool. Dean looks real, but he's also presidential looking, authoritative looking. Of course, he is short, and that could weigh against him, but he has a pleasing face. Nothing looks distracting or weird. He looks sincere and honest.

Alan Schroeder: He's pugnacious, and that's good on television. Unpredictable people are more watchable. Ross Perot was a perfect example of that -- he was compulsively watchable; you were never sure what was going to happen with him. I think a certain degree of righteous indignation is a good thing in a debate. There's energy around that. You're more drawn to people who have that edge than those who don't. I don't think he goes over the line, though. In recent debates, he seems to have reined in his instincts, but he always seems more genuine, a little more alive than the others. ... Even though he's short, I don't think that height is applicable in the primary. Although in a two-man race, they say the taller candidate always wins.

Paul Begala: He needs to be a little cooler. He's a little hot, a little angry. He's got these hand gestures, the wagging index finger. Clinton had this gesture that would start towards his heart; he'd put his hand on his chest, near his heart, it was a subconscious thing. And then he'd open his arm out, his fingers all cupped together, but not pointing. An index finger doesn't come from the heart.

Tom Julian: [Dean] looks candid and casual in pose. His ties are classic and the dark pleated slacks are what you would expect from a middle-aged classic dresser. ... Many candidates like to do the rolled sleeve to show the worker aspect of their personality: "I can jump in and get the job done no matter what."

John Edwards

Begala: He's 50 years young. He's great looking, the best-looking candidate since Ronald Reagan, but so very young. If you combine that with the fact that here's a guy in his first term in the Senate, that's a real problem for him. I keep thinking of the line in "About Last Night" when Jim Belushi told Rob Lowe, "What you need is an industrial accident."

Julian: [Edwards] shows a little Ivy League attitude, but he may just be too young to carry off a charismatic role.

Rovitto: He's kind of goofy looking in some photos. There's that youthfulness. He's almost collegiate looking. But I don't think his looks alone are such a distraction in the negative sense that it necessarily is a strike against him.

Brabender: The biggest problem Edwards has is that he looks too much like a candidate. He seems like someone sent from Central Casting to play the role of a young Southern senator running for president. This has hurt his credibility. I've thought all along he only entered the race to see if he could get a TV series out of it.

Schroeder: He's a really good debater, but his success as a communicator hasn't translated as a success in his campaign. He's got the gift: He looks good; he's smart. But he's not seasoned, this is only the second thing he's ever run for in his life, and [he] doesn't bring that gravitas on the stage with him. The Republicans call him "the Breck girl" because of his hair. But there was a debate in Phoenix, when the candidates were taking questions from the audience towards the end, and he was the best of all in terms of interacting with that person in the audience while understanding that he needed to communicate to the television audience as well. Bill Clinton did that better than anyone. There's something about those Southern boys.

Richard Gephardt

Rovitto: He's too light. His blond features could be a distraction and a deterrent. He has no emphasis, no strong character in his face. But he seems like a big guy or at least an average-sized person. Diminutive is not a good thing to be when you're trying to run for office.

Schroeder: Part of Gephardt's problem is that he has found lines he likes and uses them in every debate, which won't be good in the long haul. There's going to come a point where people are going to spend a lot of weeks watching these people. He needs to talk more spontaneously, but he's a very programmatic debater, like John Kerry -- or Al Gore. There's this message he has, and he's not going to go beyond that.

Begala: I worked for him in 1988, and we had to paint his eyebrows on. His hair is just so light. He had a problem the last time he ran, when he was painted as a phony and too uptight, but he has been quite honest with people about his life, about nearly losing his son, about his daughter coming out as a lesbian. He's a Midwestern Tom Sawyer type.

Brabender: Gephardt always seems a lot like the kid in school who would remind the teacher that there was supposed to be a test that day. Nobody ever liked that kid.

Julian: He's got the classic, safe, perfect photo smile.

John Kerry

Rovitto: He has a Lincoln-esque quality to him, and, psychologically, this could play to his benefit. He's tall, lanky, thin-faced. He's actually got a long, long face, so he's not a traditionally handsome guy, but he has these regular features that are appealing.

Begala: He looks like a president. He's big, self-assured, a little aloof. His manner is pretty good for TV; he's engaged but a little bit cool. Bush has cornered the market on being everyone's fraternity brother, while Kerry is a little more elegant, which works for him as a Democrat. If he were a Republican, with all the money he has, he'd be history.

Brabender: Sometimes Kerry comes across as warm and sincere. Other times, he seems like he's had a charisma bypass. And the operation was very successful.

Schroeder: I think John Kerry has the Al Gore problem. He is not very animated and interesting on television. The things that make him a good candidate don't translate to TV very well. He's smart and thoughtful, but that doesn't weigh as heavily in debates as performance ability.

Julian: Kerry has the walk, talk and demeanor. I'd go with him for the expected, aspirational person to fulfill the presidential role. I go back to his physical stance and emotional expression and a little of a distinct quality to his style statement.

Dennis Kucinich

Begala: I believe the word Martian was mentioned by someone at some point. But I would never say that about him. He looks like a nice guy.

Brabender: I do not believe Kucinich is from this planet. It's very obvious. I'm also suspicious that Kucinich is actually a prop of the Democratic Party, placed in the race to make their other candidates look better by comparison.

Rovitto: He looks small. Diminutive. He's the weakest of the bunch.

Julian: In one photo he makes the only unique neckwear statement with a light brown silk tie, which is a nontypical color palette.

Schroeder: There is something kind of extraterrestrial-looking about him. He's got those big ears. He could grow his hair longer. This is someone who doesn't put much effort into how he looks. And then there's that comb-over. He projects humorlessness. It isn't that you shouldn't take it all seriously, but you've also got to be a warm, comfortable presence. The president is someone you invite into your homes every evening on the news, so you want to welcome them, and I'm not sure people would put out the welcome mat to Dennis Kucinich.

Joe Lieberman

Begala: He's got what my friend Mark Halperin at ABC calls the "M-I-S-T-I-A" effect -- the "more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger" thing. In a real sense, Lieberman projects this integrity, with these sad eyes reluctantly criticizing his opponents. That works for Joe, who is really the opposite of Howard Dean, who is always speaking in anger, never in sadness. Of course, you risk looking a little bit like Deputy Dawg if you do this too much. But he's kind of telegenic, in a retro way. It's like what President Bush told a reporter the other day: "You have a face for radio."

Rovitto: That quivering voice and nervous gestures are possible detriments. He's droopy, he's craggy, and he just doesn't quite measure up to the others in terms of telegenics. But that could change in the context of the whole campaign.

Julian: In one picture, Lieberman uses the fist, and that's a real winner's move.

Schroeder: He's an interesting guy. He can be very good in debates, very folksy, and he can really twist the knife. He's got that ability to make it seem that it's not about him, it's about the "greater good of America" that he has to say these terrible things about his opponents. He looks like he sounds, and I don't find that to be a problem. He carries a lot of good will with him from the last campaign. He's like a comfortable old shoe.

Brabender: Lieberman's biggest problem is that he still seems like a vice presidential candidate. He often seems like he's there by mistake. And he actually comes across as too nice. I keep waiting to see if at one of the debates one of the other candidates asked him if he wouldn't mind going on a beverage run.

Al Sharpton

Rovitto: He has lost a lot of weight, and he has a lot more presence than before. There's been great improvement. I think someone's been working with the guy. Still, there's too much there, too much going on. The hair is too long and slicked back. And the red tie and handkerchief is overkill. It says power, but it's too obvious.

Julian: Sharpton uses a white shirt and solid red tie to play differently from his male counterparts, like when Clinton used silver-gray colors to complete his skin tone and stature in his early days.

Brabender: The new and improved Sharpton is actually a pretty good product. In fact, he creates a problem for the other candidates because he is so good at commanding attention. Even people who disagree with every word that comes out of his mouth still find him interesting, and even appealing. I wouldn't want to have to speak after him.

Schroeder: He is so much funnier than anyone else on that stage, and that engenders a lot of good will that allows us to overlook his hair and the fact he's not going to win. He comes out with these one-liners, and what's great about his jokes is that he's able to say what he wants politically within the context of a joke, like: "The election is a battle between the Christian right and the right Christians." It's a political statement, and yet it's clever, witty, not a piece of political rhetoric. I would liken him to Alan Keyes, who ran for office so he could raise his lecture fee and get a TV show, which he did. This is a career move ... that's probably astute.

Begala: [Sharpton] can come across as slick, but he's not off-putting because he's so darn funny. It's hard to be a preacher running for president and pull it off -- look at Pat Robertson -- but Sharpton's running more for credibility than because he has any serious chance of winning. He's funny but not a buffoon. In fact, he wisely steps out of the fray and chastises the others if things don't stay serious. ... His hairstyle comes from the fact that his hero is James Brown, so he's got the 'do -- although I don't think James Brown is a success because of his hairstyle.

Post-Gazette staff writer Mackenzie Carpenter can be reached at or 412-263-1949.

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