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Media Literacy Review
Center for Advanced Technology in Education - College of Education - University of Oregon - Eugene

Politicians Promise Us Everything

Bill Walsh, Contributing Writer

The battle between style and substance in political campaigns ended long ago, with style emerging as the clear winner. Some point back to the Kennedy-Nixon debates of 1960 as the crucial turning point. Those who watched the debates on television thought that Kennedy had won. Those who listened on radio (and were therefore deprived of visual images) thought Nixon won.

For the past 40 years (at least), it's been more important how a candidate looked and acted than what he said. His image and behavior have become more important than his words and policies. Actually, of course, none of any of these things are the candidate's alone. Many years ago the American public learned that there are image specialists, policy advisors, personal appearance coaches, campaign managers and speech writers. What we see and hear from candidates is a carefully-managed construction - a political product which they hope we'll "purchase" with our votes.

Media literacy tries to reveal, acknowledge, and study those constructions - all of them. We become more intelligent consumers of even political products when we realize that we're buying the ad, the sizzle, the promises, and the image rather than the person. But maybe the constructed image we're getting is actually pretty revealing.

And so when Vice President Al Gore accepted the nomination of his party to run for President last week, I decided to listen closely to what he said rather than how he said it. I knew it was a carefully constructed speech, but I hoped that there was something to be learned from its content (as opposed to its style or delivery).

I kept a list of what he said his priorities were, what he said he'd work on, what he promised to the American people if only they'd vote for him. It was a pretty lengthy, inclusive list:

He promised a "better, fairer, more prosperous America." Also prosperity for working families. He said he'd help folks protect their children from violent entertainment, give more power back to parents, and insure that when kids came in from playing on a hot summer afternoon, they'd get a glass of safe drinking water.

He promised to reverse global warming. He said he'd have open meetings all across the country to keep in touch with normal people. He said he wants a prescription drug benefit plan for all seniors under Medicare. He will fight for a "real" Patients' Bill of Rights.

He will put democracy back into the hands of the American people. He will get all of the special interest money (all of it) out of our democracy.

He will save and strengthen Medicare. Provide affordable health care for all. Cover all children under universal health care. End the stigma of mental illness. Double funding for medical research, and find a cure for cancer, diabetes, and AIDS. He really said this.

He pledged to rebuild crumbling schools, reduce class sizes, and instill character into our youth. He will make our schools the best in the world. He will put a qualified teacher in every classroom, test all new teachers, and give all teachers more training. He will institute high quality universal preschool. He will make college tuition tax-deductible.

And that's not all.

He will reform the estate tax, end the marriage penalty, balance the budget every year, and pay off the national debt.

He will raise the minimum wage, expand child care, defend civil rights, support a woman's right to choose, remove barriers for the disabled, pass a law against hate crimes, add 50,000 new cops, put safety locks on all guns, keep America's defenses strong, and end child labor.

He also said that he would work for us every day and never let us down.


If you can't find something in that list to love, you're just not trying! In short, he promised nearly everything to nearly everybody! He'll do everything, it seems, but forbid it to rain until after sundown!

By the way, I'm not making fun of just Al Gore here. I'm pretty sure that the other guy promised nearly as much; it's just that I wasn't listening as closely to him.

But hearing him make all these promises leads us into a quandary. I mean, Gore either believes these things or he doesn't. If he really believes that he'll do everything he promises, that makes him . . . um . . . naive or stupid (which he's not, of course). But if he doesn't believe that he can do all that he's promising, that would mean he's . . . uh . . . disingenuous (at best).

Or merely a good campaigner - which may be the same thing.

Just as his suit and his signs and his mannerisms and his image have all been crafted to appeal to the largest number of Americans, so have his promises. Everything for everybody.


With a huge national audience, with so much of campaigning now disseminated by the big media to millions of people at once, promises expand geometrically. Gone are the days of person-to-person campaigning.

Politics has become like network TV - big, grand, sweeping, trying appealing to everybody. And with big prizes at the end of the show.

If sincerity and even reality get lost in the process, well, that's just something we have to get used to. Maybe we've already gotten used to it.

A political cynic once advised, "Vote for the guy who promises the least; you'll be less disappointed that way."

I shudder to think that's true, but when the promises a political candidate makes sound more like winning the lottery, I begin to wonder.