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Please check your U.S. history textbook. Has there ever been such impassioned debate among campaign activists over their candidate’s image?
If you haven’t noticed, commentaries and reader comments at WBUR and in other media have generated a great controversy: Some supporters of Elizabeth Warren think she needs a makeover and others believe she’s wonderful as she is.
Dan Payne, my Democratic counterpart, brought this simmering disagreement to a boil when he wrote a commentary, "What’s Wrong With The Warren Campaign." Dan offered a long list of strategic and tactical recommendations, but it was his advice about image that stirred debate:
Lose the granny glasses; they’re 40 years late and add about 10 years to her age on TV. Soften the hair; the Page Boy haircut makes her seem joylessly practical. Coaching can deepen her voice, which grates on some, and make her seem less strident. With all the money she’s raised, she can afford the best coaches.
Some Warren supporters responded indignantly. They said her “joylessly practical” look was not a legitimate issue. Many wrote at length about why no one should be interested in such a non-issue and said people shouldn’t write or talk about the issue. But others could not resist the temptation of reading those comments and commenting themselves.
Unfortunately, time is running out for fashioning a less-professorial Professor Warren. She has her first debate with Sen. Scott Brown this Thursday.
To help her campaign settle image issues that her strategists have debated for months, let’s imagine a debate at Faneuil Hall between two Massachusetts politicians: John Kennedy, a pioneer in image-making, and John Adams, champion of principle over personality.
Moderator Jim Braude (host of “Broadside” on New England Cable News): John and John, I won’t bother to introduce you — people already know you from the History Channel. But let me explain the rules of the debate: Each of you will speak in sound-bites. I will interrupt whenever I have a thought. And you will stick to the topic: Should Elizabeth Warren have an image makeover?
John F. Kennedy: Thank you, Mr. Braude. It’s an honor to be here, and to represent the many Democrats who have passed on and yet fulfill their civic duty to vote and...
Moderator: I’m sorry, your time is up. Mr. Adams, your turn.
John Adams: Greetings, distinguished gentlemen, and I should add, gracious ladies...
Moderator: Thank you, Mr. Adams, but we don’t want to be patronizing. Let me pose again, to both Johns, the question of the night — image makeover or no makeover?
Kennedy: I, uh, believe that this question of image, uh, is a relevant concern for our time and place, for friends and foes alike, shedding light on vital qualities of leadership...
Moderator: Thank you, Mr. Kennedy. I’m going to interpret your vague answer as being in favor of her needing a new speech coach. Let me follow up with a question. When you ran for president, some Americans were put off by your Boston accent. How’d you overcome that?
Kennedy: The idear that I had a Bawston accent and spoke in an irregulah mannah...
Moderator: Never mind. Let me ask you to be a profile in candor about your famous use of makeup in the debate with Richard Nixon. Wasn’t that the key to your winning, even more than your running mate, Lyndon Johnson, stealing the election in Texas?
Kennedy: You’re lucky that, uh, Lyndon is not here to defend his honor and sock you.
Moderator: I’m just saying that you were very styling in your day, a trend-setter. How can Elizabeth Warren exude some of that charisma? Mr. Adams, any thoughts?
Adams: Thank you for recognizing me again, kind sir, despite my frumpy façade --
Moderator: And grumpy demeanor. But that’s OK – people dig your frumpy and grumpy image. It’s old school, but it’s real. Have you ever worn a barn jacket?
Adams: That seems an odd question. As a statesman, I am not known for barn attire.
Moderator: What about your stature? You were much smaller than your opponent, Thomas Jefferson. Were you concerned about being height-challenged, image-wise? Did you go with higher heels?
Adams: I trust you do not mean what your words imply, sir.
Moderator: OK, let’s talk about words. Elizabeth Warren tries not to sound like a Harvard professor. She says stuff like “the middle class is getting hammered.” Nailed, kicked, slammed… Both of you were pretty refined in language. Was that a handicap? Did you have trouble projecting “regular guy” when your prose was a little highfalutin?
Adams: All the perplexities, confusion and distress in America arise not from want of honor or virtue, so much as from the downright ignorance of --
Moderator: OK, so you don’t think language is a big deal. Let’s go to questions from Twitter. Joe from Waltham asks Mr. Adams: “Should Warren follow your example and powder her hair?”
Adams: My dear sir, that is a most impertinent question.
Moderator: Yes, so take your time in answering.
Adams: I am appalled to think my hair, or lack thereof, should be a public concern --
Kennedy: If I may, Mr. Moderator, I believe I can address that question. My hair has been an issue of, uh, social interest, and my family has been responsive to press inquiries about style and spray but, uh, regarding the senate race...
Moderator: Sorry, Johns, we’ve run out of time. But this has been illuminating. Stay tuned for our special program, “Celebrity Dog Walkers: Who’s Whispering What?”
This program aired on September 15, 2012. The audio for this program is not available.
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