Film critic David Thomson, author of “A Biographical Dictionary of Film” and “How to Watch a Movie,” has a new book coming out this month, “Television: A Biography,” which examines the medium and its six-decade history. In the book, Thomson addresses the medium in two sections: “The Medium,” which explores the social and political climate of the television age, the move from novel craze to complacent habit and more; and “The Messages,” which considers the evolution of TV shows, the relationship between Americans and television and more. “The sacred fixed altar (the set) has given up its central place of worship and is now just one screen among so many, like the dinner table kept for state occasions in a life of snacking,” says Thomson.
In the excerpt below, read Thomson’s opinions on how a president’s comfortability with television helps them connect with voters and distract them from their more “serious” flaws. He examines how Ronald Reagan’s acting skills helped shield him from political criticism and how Donald Trump’s career as a reality TV star helps him win his party’s nomination.
David Thomson’s “Television: A Biography” will be available to purchase on October 25 from Amazon.
What protected Reagan from sensible political criticism was that he was an actor, and even a poor or dull actor, who carried on bravely nonetheless. There was a foolish or lightweight side to him, to be sure: He got carried away with the Strategic Defense Initiative, just like a kid in love with “Star Wars,” and he never saw that it was daft. And as to Iran-Contra, well, it is quite possible that he was told about it at some meeting or other. But as the wry political commentator Jack Germond guessed, “They told him, but he forgot.” And no, I’m not using that as a mean way of suggesting that his Alzheimer’s condition had begun some time before the end of his administration. I’m just saying he might have forgotten. We all forget things all the time. Mark Feeney has a lovely story about that and how judgments about him didn’t quite matter. Nixon was talking about Iran-Contra when there was thought of criminal wrongdoing. “Reagan will survive,” said Nixon, “because when all is said and done, he can get up and say, ‘I am an idiot and therefore can’t be blamed,’ and everyone will agree. I never had that option.”
“Idiot” there is too much; it shows Nixon’s mean streak, just as Arthur Jensen could have called Howard Beale “buddy” instead of “dummy.” Reagan was nowhere near an idiot, but he knew not to make an issue of intelligence. It offends too many viewers, and easily smacks of villainy. Reagan had been a lifeguard once, proud of the lives he had saved, and he always had a look that said, “Hey, buddy, I’m here, I could save you” — so long as the threat was just drowning and not a Laffer curve. He wanted to be helpful, to be needed and liked. That’s how he and the presidency were so good for each other.
You may think I am saying this tongue in cheek, as a way of mocking Reagan. Not so, but in the not so, I am touching on something that may be more disconcerting than any chance that he was an idiot, or unqualified. Reagan was an acting buddy: He played the role of a possible friend. To that end, he was impressive and endearing at very commonplace things — like crossing a lawn from a helicopter to the White House; giving a cheery wave; chuckling at a joke (whether or not there had been one); standing up at a microphone and saying, “Well…”; or smiling when someone said something — it didn’t matter what. You’re going to argue that those are petty assets, absurd to note in a president, but they are the stuff of television, and Reagan was the first man in that office entirely comfortable with the empire of such things — a very amiable empire, warm but cool. He did those little things to silly perfection, the things that are usually cut out of a movie to concentrate on the “important” or “meaningful” things.
But movies aren’t television, and movies can often look antique, arthritic, pompous, and moribund in comparison, puffed up with their own dramatic self-importance. That’s what betrayed Nixon — he was no good at being casual or dull, perhaps because he didn’t want to think himself capable of such things, but also because he was so bad at relaxing with television — or with anything else? We were learning that ease was vital to a TV president or to candidates for the office, and might cover for ignorance, carelessness, and a recklessness that was still startling when a Donald Trump exhibited it.
Presidents are still capable of doing BIG things — like Abu Ghraib, Health Care, and Monica Lewinsky. Perhaps they are just big, or big. A president could yet terminate existence or help it last a while longer. My point is rather that television has introduced the possibility of presidents who do very little except walk across the lawn, get up to speak, say “Well…,” and give you a good-buddy shake of the hand without quite knowing or caring who you are. They are the one on television; they are there. That feeling comes from having watched Reagan closely for eight years, from thinking about television most of my life, and from reading Edmund Morris’s reckless, yet inspired book Dutch, in which we see the emptiness of the actor fading into the deserted shell of dementia, and feel as touched as in reading any book about any president.
On January 5, 2016, Barack Obama appeared at the White House to offer proposals on the regulation of gun usage in the United States. There were television cameras to record the occasion, as well as relatives of victims of our various gun tragedies. The president’s proposals were modest. They did not address the willful misreading of the Second Amendment. They only touched on the regularity of shooting incidents in schools, or the quantity of firearms in the nation. There was every fear that any moderate executive actions would be opposed, and mocked.
The president wept. He was immediately attacked for that show of feeling. Some said he was acting for the camera. Who knows what happens in the mind of a weary, dismayed president? Who knows how much secret knowledge of our perils he lives with? Who knows how far a humanist is on edge and exhausted after several years in a maddened society, and in the midst of an election campaign that horrified so many would-be voters and reminded us of grotesque TV shows?
So the man who goes on television for us wept and was decried as an actor. Is there time left for us to grow up?
I concluded a revision of this chapter on the morning of Super Tuesday, March 1, 2016, wondering if the events of that day would ensure that Trump had the Republican nomination for president. At that point, his own theoretical party was plainly and belatedly devastated by his performance, and by the way he had unleashed storms of “reality TV” on what might have been a considered process for rational voters. This onslaught had been grisly, and there was every reason to blame Trump personally—and to note that we have been unable to subdue him with the reasoned criticism, humor, and judgment that we think are expected of us. We had been powerless, as in so many other respects, while abetting the possible delivery of power to a monstrous “Other.”
Some called this politics as usual. In the New York Times, Ross Douthat proposed that the Obama administration had itself paved a way for Trump. I think that was unfair and inaccurate: Obama had striven to seem an old-fashioned gentleman on television — Trump played as a deliberate lout. But the nature of television as a technology was more potent, and less resistible, than any individual style or decision. We were having a presidential campaign that grew out of television itself. Trump’s acuity was in feeling that slide towards chaos and riding it like a skier in a slalom.
It was my estimate that Trump had never anticipated being Mr. President: He knew how tedious and impotent that job was. His aim was to be Mr. TV on a new show, every night perhaps, in which he attacked the next president and any other politician in sight — and regularly “fired” them. Douglas McGrath wrote a New Yorker fiction in which he imagined Trump conjuring up ever more outlaw remarks or stunts in the hope that they would ruin his prospects. But at every fresh outrage, his numbers only improved. Could he be trapped on his own mud slide?
So, is there time left for us to grow up?
Excerpted from Television: A Biography, by David Thomson
© 2016 David Thomson. All rights reserved.
Reproduced with permission from Thames & Hudson Inc, www.thamesandhudsonUSA.com