The Presidential Pageant: “There He Is, Mr. America…”

“The pageant has changed, but not for the better,” commented an editorial in a New Jersey newspaper, the Asbury Park Press. “Eliminating most of the talent portion of the competition from this year’s broadcast was a mistake. Trotting the contestants out in string bikinis rather than one-piece suits probably did more to alienate traditional viewers than attract new ones.”

These days, we shouldn’t burn a lot of calories patting ourselves on the back. In 2004, television routinely features a steady flow of rigid gender roles — as a close look at an array of commercials attests — and the use of women’s bodies to sell products is standard media operating procedure.

As reflected in the viewer ratings, the concept of Miss America has gone out of fashion. In contrast, the networks devote countless hours to covering what we might call the Mr. America pageant — also known as the presidential campaign.

They’re polar opposites — an inconsequential Miss America contest and a momentous presidential contest — yet political journalists, especially the ones on television, often lapse into reviewing debate performances and stump speeches on the basis of little more than style. Reporters and pundits are apt to applaud well-executed spin without reference to the factual basis or wisdom of the assertions.

But for half a century, few people had reason to care exactly who became Miss America. Ever since the 1950s, however, each battle to win the presidency has been more about television than the one before. Candidate performances in front of TV cameras — and how journalists characterize those appearances — have assumed ever-greater importance in the nation’s presidential selection process.

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