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Jack Smith

If 'beauty is truth, truth beauty,' that's not all we need to know today: What's 'telegenic'?

May 18, 1987|Jack Smith

"Just what in tarnation does telegenic mean?" asks Larry Edwards of San Diego.

Edwards notes that Robert Shogan used the word in The Times in a story about Democratic presidential candidate Gary Hart: " . . . with the craggy foothills of the Rocky Mountains providing a telegenic background, Hart said. . . . "

"I tried to puzzle it out," Edwards says, "using my dictionary, but all I came up with was that a telegenic is a long-distance operator having a baby. For the life of me, I can't see how that has a thing to do with Gary Hart's background. . . . "

First, Edwards needs a new dictionary. Telegenic has been around for years. It is listed in Webster's New World Dictionary, in Webster's Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary, in the American Heritage Dictionary and in the Random House Dictionary, which happen to be four I have at hand.

Perhaps the American Heritage definition is the simplest: "presenting a pleasing appearance on television."

Webster's Ninth New Collegiate says, "having an appearance and manner that are markedly attractive to television viewers."

Webster's New World says, "that looks or is likely to look attractive on television; said especially of persons."

Random House says, "having physical qualities or characteristics that televise well; videogenic."

Anyone who cares about keeping up with the language owes it to himself to buy a new dictionary at least every three years. Even the new one will be out of date when you buy it.

Telegenic is a natural extension of photogenic , which has been around at least two generations. Photogenic means a person (usually) who photographs well.

It might seem that photogenic would serve as well for someone who looked good on TV, as well as in still photographs or movies.

But television is a different medium, and in its unrelenting scrutiny of the face in action, it can often nullify the beauty projected by that same face in repose, or as photographed in the careful angles and with the contrived lighting of motion pictures.

In contemporary politics, a presidential candidate who is not telegenic is doomed. Shogan was speaking about the Rocky Mountains, which are indeed telegenic, but he might well have described Hart as telegenic, for that he is.

The late Marshall McLuhan was prophetic in his obscure axiom that "The medium is the message." In part, at least, I suspect he meant that a telegenic face will sway millions of voters, whatever its owner's message may be; that, in fact, his personality, as projected by the medium, is his message.

The power of the television image was brought home to us in the first debate between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon. Despite Kennedy's annoying habit of jerking his right arm, as if trying to brush off a pest, Nixon had no chance against him. Kennedy's all-American war hero's face, his tousled hair, his toothy smile, his air of youthful confidence, his cheerful, resonant voice, simply put the dour, humorless Nixon back into the dark ages, glowering behind his five-o'clock shadow. It was no contest.

The present resident of the White House is also telegenic. Television was made for Ronald Reagan. He too comes across as the all-American boy, despite his years; his crooked smile, his wavy hair, his aw-shucks manner, his God-fearing sincerity, his good guy inflection--all impart a reassuring persona that the American people love.

Reagan's telegenic face is his message. Walter Mondale, even with the help of the more telegenic Geraldine Ferraro, had no more chance against Reagan than the Broncos had against the Giants in the Super Bowl.

It is awesome to think of the power Franklin Delano Roosevelt would have exerted over the nation if he had made his famous fireside chats on television, instead of radio. Imagine that patrician head, with its confident toss, its defiant smile, that avuncular, reassuring voice, that confidential manner, now solemn, now laughing--what radiance and power it would have disseminated through that little box in millions of homes throughout the land.

Well, of course he didn't need it. He was a master of radio, and it may even be that TV might have given the people more of F.D.R. than they could embrace.

But we who heard him will never forget the insidious charm of that disarming salutation--"My friends. . . . "

What's the word for that? Radiogenic? Alas, like photogenic , the word had a scientific meaning: "produced by or determined from radioactivity." Preemptive.

On a lesser scale, most of the anchormen and women who present the news on the nation's TV screens are telegenic. It goes with their jobs. Peter Jennings is telegenic. Tom Brokaw is telegenic. Diane Sawyer is telegenic. Christine Lund is telegenic. Connie Chung is telegenic. Kelly Lange is telegenic. All have a classic beauty that translates, their employers evidently think, into integrity, though beauty and integrity are not necessarily related in real life.

On the other hand, Bill Stout has so much integrity that it comes out as a sort of perverse beauty. There is something to admire and love in that wry, sardonic, skeptical, lupine curmudgeon's face, in that sensuous canine growl.

Perhaps Walter Cronkite was the most telegenic of all. His face and voice inspired trust. If he said it, it must be true.

Those who love to believe in conspiracies believe that we never landed men on the moon; that it was just a television show, rigged up with special effects, to fool the nation and the Russians.

But most Americans believe it. Because Walter Cronkite told them it was true.

That's telegenic.

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