Did McCain screw himself when he promoted speedy adoption of HDTV?

Gossip, speculation, and scuttlebutt about politics.
May 19 2008 7:57 PM

Did McCain Create an HDTV Monster?

The technology he helped bring to market could kill his candidacy.

Marie Curie died from exposure to radium, her greatest discovery. Jim Fixx, who sold Americans on the health benefits of running, was killed by a heart attack at 52. To this roster of ironic demise we may soon add John McCain, the Senate's pre-eminent champion of high-definition TV.

As Senate commerce committee chairman in 1998, and later as the committee's highest-ranking Republican in 2002, McCain excoriated broadcasters for transitioning too slowly to the digital spectrum after the government had given away billions of dollars in HDTV-ready frequencies. (High-definition signals are available only via the digital spectrum. For a fuller explanation of the difference between "digital" and "HDTV," two terms often used interchangeably, click here.) In 2007, McCain complained that a congressionally mandated deadline of Feb. 17, 2009, to abandon the old analog spectrum was "too late" and introduced legislation to yank that spectrum from broadcasters and turn it over to police, medical, and other public-safety personnel. If it weren't for McCain's ceaseless agitating on this issue, HDTV probably wouldn't have anywhere near its present estimated penetration of roughly 11 percent of all U.S. households. High-definition TVs are not yet a mass-market consumer product, but they've become sufficiently ubiquitous in sports bars, offices, malls, and other public spaces that most Americans have likely had a gander at the new technology. Prices have dropped below $1,000, and if your analog TV happens to get fried during an electrical storm (as happened to me last year), you may find that your local electronics store now sells digital only. This is great news for McCain the consumer champion but terrible news for McCain the presidential candidate.

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Last year, when McCain's candidacy appeared to be in serious trouble, you heard a lot about how awful he looked. He'd gotten old, his face was scarred from melanoma surgery; no wonder his presidential run was headed south. Then McCain started racking up primary victories, and his telegenic deficit was forgotten. I don't watch TV news much—with two kids, who has the time?—and what news clips I see tend to be off the Web. On cable-news sites and YouTube, McCain looked fine to me.

Then, this past weekend, I watched Saturday Night Live with my kids. McCain appeared in close-up in a mildly amusing skit whose purpose (at least from McCain's perspective) was to remove the age issue from voters' minds by turning it into a joke. It worked for Ronald Reagan in 1984; why shouldn't it work for McCain in 2008? With me, though, it had the exact opposite effect. As someone who'd pooh-poohed the age issue, I found myself gasping at McCain's mug as transmitted in glorious HDTV. Wrinkles, blotches, liver spots, scarry tissue—none of these were hidden by McCain's makeup. As McCain cracked wise ("What do we want in our next president? Certainly someone who is very, very, very old."), I found myself thinking, Jeez, he doesn't look like a guy who'll turn 72 this August.He looks like a guy who'll turn 82. (Note to reader: The link I provide to the SNL skit won't give you any sense of what I'm talking about, because the clip isn't high-definition.)

For all I know, McCain is in fine physical condition. If he appears older than his chronological age, that probably has something to do with the torture he endured as a prisoner of war in Vietnam; nine years ago the Arizona Republic reported  that he continued to experience "orthopedic limitations" related to his imprisonment, including pain in his shoulders and right knee. But TV is unfair, as Richard Nixon learned when his perspiration and five o'clock shadow helped give John F. Kennedy the edge in the first-ever televised presidential debates. Had HDTV been available eight years later, I'm not sure Nixon could have won the Republican nomination, let alone the presidency.

I'm not the only person who's noticed HDTV's cruel effect on McCain's puss. Atlantic blogger Matthew Yglesias speculated on March 2 that "more pixels-per-inch isn't going to serve McCain's cause very well." On April 11, Switched.com observed that while HDTV brought out Hillary Clinton's wrinkles and McCain's melanoma scars, all it did to Barack Obama was accentuate the veins on his forehead. About a week later, Politico's Michael Calderone had more or less the same thought while watching McCain in high-def on This Week With George Stephanopoulos. (Memo to the McCain campaign: CBS's Face the Nation and NBC's Meet the Press won't upgrade to high-def this year, and therefore might be safer venues through November.) Gelf magazine noted the phenomenon  a year before. *  Most of these sources cited Phillip Swann, president of TVPredictions.com, who in 2006 took the trouble to rate five leading Republican and five leading Democratic contenders for president according to how they looked on HDTV. In retrospect, Swann's ratings indicate that at least during the primaries, looking good on HDTV was not a major factor. John Edwards got four smiley faces to Hillary Clinton's two; Obama, who had yet to emerge as a serious candidate, wasn't on the list at all. On the Republican side, the surprise winner was Rudy Giuliani, with three smiley faces to McCain's one. But a lot of the debates weren't available on HDTV, and even when they were, a lot of people weren't paying attention. That isn't true anymore.

The prevailing cliché about 2008 is that it's the first YouTube election. But it may turn out to be, more saliently, the first high-definition election. If that's the case, then McCain—more precisely, McCain's political ambition—may play the unfortunate role of Dr. Frankenstein, whose lifeless body at the end of Mary Shelley's novel is wept over by the demon he created. Across the land, LCD and plasma screens will wail  in unison, "I have devoted my creator, the select specimen of all that is worthy of love and admiration among men, to misery; I have pursued him even to that irremediable ruin." But doesn't Obama look fabulous?

[Update, May 20: Swann informs me that he updated his ratings in February 2008. Click here for the Democrats and here for the Republicans. Obama gets three smileys and McCain is upgraded from one smiley to two. Swann observes that "in debates thus far, McCain's campaign team has cleverly positioned the candidate so his [bad] left cheek is rarely visible to the camera," which helps "soften the overall appearance." Notably, in his SNL appearance McCain faced the camera head on.]

Correction, May 20, 2008: An earlier version of this column stated, incorrectly, that the Gelf magazine story appeared last month. (Return to the corrected sentence.)

Timothy Noah is a former Slate staffer. His  book about income inequality is The Great Divergence.

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