Gore Finds Medium is the Message
National Post, 12 August 2000
Image is everything in modern politics. When Jean ChrÃ©tien dashes across a runway on a scooter, or Stockwell Day straps on roller-blades, what does this tell us about their leadership? What messages can be untangled from the endless permutations of Hillary Clintonâ€™s hair, or the mellow earth-tones of Al Goreâ€™s suits?
If thereâ€™s a prophet for this brave new political world, itâ€™s Marshall McLuhan, the Edmonton-born media guru who died in 1980. In fact, Al Gore himself, long before inventing the internet, drank deep from the cup of McLuhan. As a recent article in Feed magazine points out, Gore wrote his undergraduate honors thesis at Harvard in 1969 on “The Impact of Television on the Conduct of the Presidency,” relying heavily on the late English professorâ€™s gnomic pronouncements. “Only television effectively simulates interpersonal contact,” wrote the 21-year-old U.S. Vice President-to-be. “Radio came very close; it conveyed an impression of â€˜personality,â€™ and increased the importance of the listenerâ€™s emotional responses, but only one sense was stimulated, and the most important factor in interpersonal contact — visual recognition — was still missing.” Thirty years later, the young manâ€™s analysis of President Johnsonâ€™s disastrous performance on television sounds eerily prophetic: “Johnson seemed unmistakably reluctant to face the cameras,” he wrote. “They seemed to intimidate him from being himself.”
At first glance, Gore and McLuhan are an odd couple. McLuhanâ€™s own politics were vaguely conservative, and informed by a deeply-felt Catholicism. “He was very cagey about his politics,” says Toronto Star columnist and McLuhan biographer Philip Marchand. “He didnâ€™t want to be labeled a partisan or an ideologue.” As his good friend Sheila Watkins once said of him, “oracles donâ€™t take sides.”
For McLuhan was indeed an oracle, a modern incarnation of an altogether more ancient figure. When the kings of ancient Greece contemplated warfare, they would first make the journey to the slopes of Mount Parnassus, to consult the famed oracle of Delphi. Never mind that such advice was often unreliable or deliberately misleading. Monarchs throughout the ancient and early-modern world commonly employed soothsayers, astrologers, and other mystic seers as trusted advisers. As recently as the 1980s, Ronald Reaganâ€™s political strategy relied in part on the alignment of Mars and Jupiter. Even Hillary Clinton is said to have channeled the spirit of Eleanor Roosevelt.
But unlike the oracles of ancient times, McLuhan didnâ€™t wait for political leaders to consult him. He dispensed advice generously to any who would care to listen â€“ and many who wouldnâ€™t. In 1968, says Marchand, McLuhan publicly expressed his view that presidential candidate Richard Nixon should grow a beard in order to “cool down” his image. In a more recent biography, W. Terrence Gordon tells of McLuhanâ€™s 1971 correspondence with Ontario Premier Bill Davis, in which he vehemently opposed the construction of the Spadina Expressway. “Your vision of the seventies cannot survive a cement kimono for Toronto,” he wrote mysteriously. Five years later he sent newly-elected President Jimmy Carter a telegram of congratulation. (Carter never responded.) The following year, he was out in California lecturing a mystified governor Jerry Brown on what Marchand summarizes as, “satellite information systems, discarnate man, the dyslexic television child, Christianity, and the twin hemispheres of the brain.”
But the politician for whom he had the deepest admiration was Pierre Elliott Trudeau, a man he believed embodied the new cool aesthetic that worked so effectively on TV. Throughout the 1970s the two engaged in a lively correspondence. One letter was signed, playfully, “Medium-mystically yours, Marshall McLuhan.” Trudeau accepted much of McLuhanâ€™s unsolicited advice, on anything from debating strategy to dealing with hecklers. McLuhan, for his part, admired Trudeauâ€™s vision of a non-tribal multicultural state. “McLuhan was very afraid of a revival of tribal feelings,” explains Marchand, “a fear that has been amply justified in the 1990s.”
Of course, even the oracles on Mount Parnassus could be wrong, and McLuhan had his share of loopy ideas. In 1971, he patented a product dubbed “Prohtex.” Its purpose was to remove the smell of urine from underwear without masking the “legitimate body odor” of perspiration. Many critics considered his media theories about as worthwhile, and dubbed them “McLuhanacy.” Even much of his political advice was dismissed. Trudeau rejected McLuhanâ€™s recommendation to ease French-English relations by telling jokes. “I have my doubts of the sort of jokes you mention,” he wrote McLuhan. “I do not envision hiring gag-writers in the near future.” A pity, that.
For Al Gore, who has been preparing for this political campaign all his life, it must be distressing to discover that even an oracle can do only so much. He wears the right clothes. His body language has been carefully choreographed. Heâ€™s got the best media gurus money can buy. But even McLuhan himself might have been struck dumb by a politician that television absolutely refuses to love.