Volume 1, Issue 1, 2007  
  The Visual Byte: Bill Clinton and His Town Hall Meeting Style  
  Mark Goodman, Mississippi State University
Mark Gring, Texas Tech University
Brian Anderson, Mississippi University for Women


Bill Clinton in the town hall debates of 1996 and 2000 included physical, non-verbal debate strategies.  This paper analyzed these "visual bytes” to see how Clinton used them during the debates.  While the impact of “visual bytes” on the audience cannot be measured, this paper discusses the rhetorical implications of their use.
The 1992 presidential campaign saw the introduction of the "town hall meeting" debate format, in which an audience of uncommitted voters directly asks questions of the major candidates.1 This "people’s debate" (Schroeder 2000, 30) proved popular with viewers and networks and reappeared in the 1996 and 2000 races. Candidates have generally favored this format, as they are seen to "connect" with average Americans, and the absence of partisan voters in the audience usually stifles personal attacks. The contenders do accept risk in the town hall, as they are "knocked . . . off their sound bytes" (Schroeder 2000, 145) by individual questions from attendees who may back their queries with personal experience.


What is perhaps most remarkable, though, is that candidates have greater power over the visual presentation of the debate. They are not planted in chairs or riveted to podiums, as in a traditional moderator or reporter panel debate, but may move about in a display of interaction with the American people (in the venue and in living rooms nationwide). They may employ aspects of their appearance (e.g., an imposing frame or expressive posture) to greater effect and can tap a large (and likely growing) menu of facial expressions, body movements and hand gestures to reinforce a message or counteract an opponent. These physical, non-verbal debate strategies comprise what we call "visual bytes": television-friendly actions (i.e., clearly expressive and of relatively short duration) that convey a meaning or value. We analyze Bill Clinton’s apparent mastery of the visual byte and indicate its importance for understanding political rhetoric and persuasion in the television age.

Candidate Bill Clinton’s campaign team first came up with the idea for a town hall debate, pitching the idea to President Bush in 1992, and their agreement was affirmed by the Commission on Presidential Debates, the nonpartisan organization which began sponsoring and arranging these encounters four years earlier.2 This new format attempted to invigorate televised debates in the protracted general election campaign.3 Televised debates had only been around since the Kennedy-Nixon race of 1960, and three decades later they were far from institutionalized. Lyndon Johnson had refused to debate in 1964, having taken up presidential duties only the previous November. In his original televised debate appearance, Richard Nixon’s shifting eyes, grizzled beard and perspiring forehead had proven turn-offs for viewers, and he made it clear that debates were out of the question in 1968 and 1972.

When Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford agreed to return televised debates to the general election schedule, with three encounters spaced throughout the fall of 1976 (plus a fourth for the vice presidential candidates), there began a tradition of opposing camps bargaining and bickering over formats, moderators, inclusion of minor party candidates, question content and types, as well as narrower details such as podium height, room temperature (Nixon’s bane in 1960), lighting, audience seating, backdrop color and the placement of the American flag (see Schroeder 2000; Kraus 1988). Underlying all of this negotiation have been threats to dispense with debates altogether if specific terms were not met.4

The unbroken string of debates held in the past seven election seasons have given academics as well as journalists much to examine. Communication scholarship has dissected debate transcripts (see Friedenberg 1994), while political scientists have assessed the debates’ effects on candidate approval ratings and voter choice (Holbrook 1996; Jamieson & Birdsell 1988; Geer 1988; Kraus & Davis 1981). Emphasis in both disciplines centers on the rhetorical: the message and the persuasiveness of its substance and delivery. This analytical foundation hearkens back to the Athenian forum, where students of Plato, Socrates and Aristotle battled with the Sophists over issues central to their society. Winners were declared by their ability to lead an audience through logos, ethos, and pathos through spoken discourse (and its subsequent written record). Traditionally, debate outcomes have been contested strictly on argumentation. Consider the classic Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858, glorified by historian Samuel Eliot Morison "for keen give and take, crisp, sinewy language, and clear exposition of vital issues" (1965, 596).


With the birth of the television age in the mid-twentieth century, many have noted the gradual but marked descent from a rhetorical analysis based on comprehensive messages and flowing oratory to an analysis based on easily-digestible sentences and phrases, what have been termed "sound bytes" (Jamieson & Birdsell 1988; Mickelson 1989). Jamieson (1988) argues that television has brought about a “new eloquence” that is characterized by its emphasis on narrative, self-disclosure, and the visual. The new eloquence is more effeminate when compared to the older masculine style that is combative, data driver, and impersonal (Jamieson, 1988, 6; note also R. P. Hart 1994).  Television networks have borne the brunt of criticism for this trend, shrinking the average news broadcast of a candidate’s statements from 42.3 seconds in 1968 to 7.2 seconds in 1996. Media pundits sustain the impression that debates are won and lost on the strength of a single, memorable (and brief) statement. Ronald Reagan was seen to triumph in 1980 debates by responding to Jimmy Carter’s assertions with a condescending "There you go again." Michael Dukakis was said to have lost an entire debate in 1988 based on an unemotional response to a question by CNN’s Bernard Shaw about whether Dukakis would favor the death penalty for a man who raped and murdered his wife. That same year provided a classic sound byte in a vice presidential debate: after Dan Quayle compared himself to John F. Kennedy, the older Lloyd Bentsen attacked: "Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy.”5


On television, the visual often trumps the verbal. "Television devalues content in political discourse, instead stressing candidate image, a by-product of the importance of the visual emphasis in television communication" (Hellweg, Pfau & Brydon 1992, 79).  This is what Keith V. Erickson (2000) has termed presidential rhetoric’s “visual turn” with its emphasis on performance fragments. Naturally, campaign staffs and the growing ranks of for-hire media consultants have tried to maximize the candidate’s visual impression by: avoiding unconventional clothing and hairstyles; training the candidate to address camera lenses as well as the audience; featuring the candidate’s family in campaign appearances; and a host of other now-standard considerations. Understandably, the candidate’s visible actions in debates, that is, his or her non-verbal style, has become ever more vital in determining quality of performance in those important encounters. Martel (1983) has picked out "physical tactics," such as eye contact and smiling, beginning with Kennedy-Nixon, which made a difference in audience impression of debates. Many others followed suit with case-by-case analyses of individual candidates or debates (see, for example, Sauter (1990) on Dole in 1976; Blankenship, Fine & Davis (1983) on Reagan in 1980; and Henry (1985) on Mondale-Reagan in 1984).


The small but noteworthy scholarship on non-verbal debate strategies presume that television networks control the visual image: the setting is neutral; the audience is simply a collection of spectators; and the context of the exchange is controlled by whichever candidate happens to be the lens’s target. A candidate speaks (or gestures or makes a facial expression) on camera, thus filling in the space allotted by the network for him or her to appeal, attack, joke, etc. The network takes care to balance these subjective moments, and tries to even out each candidate’s visual portrayals (roughly equal numbers of shots of the candidates at different camera angles) so that the overall effect may be declared "objective," allowing analysis of the debate to hinge on candidate performance rather than any (dis)advantage imparted by television producers.6  This system works well with moderated debates, where candidates are essentially frozen in place, but it can be upset in the town hall format, where a candidate’s freedom of movement can introduce greater complexity to television’s portrayal of direct political discourse. And candidate Bill Clinton took full advantage of his freedom in his two encounters.


While the Bush team simply practiced verbal arguments and rebuttals leading up to the town hall debate, Bill Clinton’s staff also laid out a grid, complete with fake cameras and doubles for his opponents and the audience, to train their candidate to utilize space effectively. Americans were thus introduced to a new variety of political persuasion. By positioning himself on the stage in relation with the background, to his debate opponents, and to the live audience, candidate Bill Clinton encoded the television image in a manner not seen in traditional moderator or panel debates. He literally carried on a commentary through movements combined with expressions, reinforcing his own oration and "invading" the discourse of others. For example, review of 1992 footage made clear that he "choreographed his moves so as to keep one or the other of his competitors in the camera shot at all times, a maneuver that circumvented the prohibition on cutaways of one candidate while another was speaking. . . . Clinton . . . hoped to catch Bush and Perot on camera with ‘bad facial expressions’" (Schroeder 2000, 63-64).


Peterson challenges scholars to understand "how visual factors complicate or change the impact of oral arguments," noting that "the history of visual images and elements in rhetorical scholarship in the U.S. is relatively short and thin" (2001, 19).   Fleming goes even further and questions the ability to present a visual argument, but narrowly defines argument as something that must present both a claim and subsequent support (1996, 13).  Our analysis of Clinton’s visual persuasion takes up this challenge and is fully within the bounds of those debate elements Benoit and Hansen recommend for study (2001, 131) and agrees with the contention that visual arguments are not only possible but are very real points of our daily experiences (Birdsell and Groarke, 1996; Blair, 1996; and Groarke, 1996). Tucker (2001) asserts that visual information is rhetorical, as any emphasis on an aspect of communication entices the viewer to pay attention to that aspect. We likewise assert that Clinton’s position on stage and within the camera frame provided visual information in both debates that compelled viewers to notice his presences and framed a context for understanding the spoken word. Such visualization becomes what Watt and Orbe call a "spectacle" (2002, 3). Relying upon the consumer’s knowledge of a culture’s visual elements, a spectacle enhances the potential for consumption when the viewer decodes the visual, because the consumer and the seller share a meaning experience. Clinton sold his own message with visual as well as verbal elements, and he transformed opponents’ message opportunities into scenarios where Clinton was actually doing the selling. Clinton created "meaning experiences" with the visual (and took measures to prevent his opponents from jamming the signal). Ultimately, Perot, Bush and Dole became mere adjuncts in this Clinton-dominated visual communication process.


Three characteristics of the town hall debate format make Clinton’s visual efforts notable. First, we know the audience was comprised of undecided voters (Kraus 2000, 96, 118). Clinton was not in the presence of faithful Democrats, nor was he confronted with diehard Republicans. Therefore his strategy could emphasize his fitness for the presidency (which very much involves visual elements), rather than verbally dissecting policy details, a more pressing task had he been among party loyalists. Add to that in 1992 the presence of Ross Perot, a politician for those fed up with politics as usual: Clinton and Bush both sought to prevent the disaffected from flocking to the Texas billionaire by toning down partisan jabs and emphasizing their compassion for the average citizen. Clinton strived to accomplish these ends with a heavy dose of persuasive visuals, both supporting his own positions and challenging his opponents, even while they made their presentations. Clinton had a relatively easy time of it too, as his opponents in both debates were unpracticed, even uncomfortable, in the town hall format.


Second, citizens at home brought viewing experience to the debate that played into Clinton’s hands. They were accustomed to the "objective eye" of the news camera and the normally balanced treatment of the candidates in televised debates. Clinton’s visual byte offered a subjective camera composition to his advantage at times viewers expected it to favor one of his opponents. Even at times where total balance was pursued (e.g., a head-on shot of the whole stage), Clinton could manipulate the visual presentation to reinforce his position or create doubt in the value of his opponents’ positions.


Third, in the course of any debate, citizens listen to more than an hour of talking. As auditory attention wanes, visual subtexts become even more important. This pattern is bolstered when debates are viewed on television. Viewers are conditioned to interpret images on television more than verbal information. Further, with viewers expecting digestible audio (i.e., a series of concise, catchy sound bytes), visual strategies conform to shortened attention spans. Bill Clinton understood all of this and structured his non-verbal debate strategy to be clearly interpretable, concise and of limited duration.


In the analysis that follows, we dissect Clinton’s visual performance in the 1992 and 1996 town hall debates. We explain six techniques he used to create visual bytes and show how he fit them into his overall debate strategy. In our conclusion we place Clinton’s visual byte strategy into a larger rhetorical and persuasive context.


The scope of this analysis is limited to delineating the persuasive potential of a finite number of visual interactions in the 1992 and 1996 town hall presidential debates. As such, it is not the scope of this study to present a traditional rhetorical analysis that analyzes the epistemological foundations or the patterns of discourse. The interaction is rhetorical in that we grant the interlocutors the presumption of persuasive intent, but our analysis is rhetorical only so far as we argue that the visual byte offers additional symbolic cues that go beyond the verbal interaction.   Since we are not doing a rhetorical analysis and because our data is limited to two town hall debates from two different presidential campaigns, we are reluctant to make broad claims about the impact of the visual byte on those who watched the debate.  Our contention is that the visual byte strategy is one dimension in the larger panorama of the Clinton presidential election/re-election plan.  The use of the visual byte is probably most significant to the approximately 10% of the voting population who vote based on the visual cues alone (John Splaine, personal phone call with Mark Gring, 3 May 1999). 


We use quantitative data in a very limited way.  We needed to discover if Clinton’s efforts to use the visual byte were systematic or random, presuming that systematic use would indicate some level of intent.  Our data shows that Clinton was systematic within the debates and between debates.


The Debates

Both debates aired under pool arrangements by NBC, CBS, ABC, and other news outlets.  The samples used were recorded live off NBC in 1992 and 1996.   Under the pool arrangement, the site crew set up camera locations and directed the live coverage.  Presumably, neither candidate could control camera framing or camera shot selection.  Kraus (2000) reports that the candidates tried to limit the shots, but that the television producers ignored the restrictions included in the agreement between the candidates (123).   In 1992, the University of Richmond hosted the debate.  The set was a platform with seats rising from the floor above the candidates.  Three cameras on stands were located in the aisles with one camera roaming from behind the audience.  The middle aisle camera was located center stage; the other two cameras were about 45 degrees from center on the right and left.  America flags decorated the side walls with a blue wall directly behind the candidates.  The three candidates each had tables with stools.



The arrangement of the seating at the first town hall debate made it possible for Clinton to anticipate camera angles before the debate.  One camera is in the center. The tripod and lens of a second camera can be seen on the right.  A third camera was opposite on the left.  These three cameras were the principle ones used during the debate.


The 1996 town hall debate took place in San Diego.   The people who asked questions sat in seating rising above the candidates.  Four cameras divided the auditorium into quarters.  Above the public seating was a fifth camera while a sixth camera could shoot from behind the candidates.  Neither the fifth or sixth camera shots were used extensively.7


As in the first town hall debate, Clinton could anticipate camera angles.  Kraus (2000) witnessed Clinton developing his on-stage strategy the day before the debate, noting Clinton figured out the lighting, podium placement, and what the actual picture would like on television (124).   If the red light lit on the camera to the far right, Clinton could place himself behind Dole.  The other three cameras would offer him less opportunity to position himself while Dole talked.  However, Clinton could stand between any of the two cameras and set the pose he wanted. 

The next level of analysis recorded Clinton's physical responses when he appeared on camera during an opponent's time.  Clinton had four noticeable responses in 1992 and 1996: the smirk, attentive listening, challenging body language, and unaware of being on camera.   Sometimes he demonstrated more than one reaction per question.  While other researchers may notice other visual reactions, these four are important because they provide Clinton's visual interpretations of the words of his political opponents.  In the smirk, Clinton indicated with lip movements and sometimes a shake of the head that his opponent answered incorrectly or the opposition did not understand the issue.  Clinton usually signaled attentive listening when gazing into the face of his speaking opponent, an interested look on his face, often with his elbow on his knee and chin in his hand.  This body language signaled a willingness to consider those ideas.  Challenging body language occurred most obviously when Clinton stood up straight (less obviously when he straightened up while sitting), took a short step towards his opponent, locked his jaw, fixed his eyes, and thrust his head forward towards the opponent.   Clinton's reactions signaled his willingness to contest the response of his opponent.  Any other important uses of body language were inconsistent and are noted in the text.  We did not record the number of appearances of Clinton's opponents while he spoke and how they reacted.  This paper focuses on Clinton's use of the visual byte in town hall debates; however, we do provide an over view of the visual presentations of President George Bush, Ross Perot, and Bob Dole.

The final level of analysis noted Clinton's actions when he spoke.  Again a pattern of behavior emerged.  In 1992, Clinton often managed to be framed in the camera with the American flag behind him, which required Clinton to leave his table and chair and take about five steps out onto the stage.  Next, Clinton consistently used small hand gestures made above the waist, either pointing with his left hand or holding his two hands apart.  Either gesture generally made his hands visible to the television audience and kept his hands within the frame of the television.  Thirdly, Clinton positioned himself in relationship to the television cameras, creating an aesthetically pleasing just-off-the-nose shot typically used in shooting television news (Zettl, 1990).  Some profile shots also aired.   Either shot required Clinton to find a spot approximately halfway between two cameras, but far enough distant to keep the camera from peering into his ear instead of catching the side of his nose. In 1996, a similar behavioral pattern emerged when applied to hand gestures and camera angles.  The one 1996 change in Clinton's visual byte was the American flag shot, impossible in 1996 because the flags were not in close proximity to the speakers.  Instead Clinton preferred to walk about five steps towards the questioner, placing him in nose-angle position to the cameras with the audience as a backdrop.


The 1992 Analysis

In 1992 each candidate answered thirteen questions and made a closing statement.  Every time that either Perot or Bush spoke, Clinton appeared in the background in at least one shot (Table 1).  During all of Perot's answers, Clinton appeared to be attentively listening.  When Bush spoke, Clinton listened attentively twice, smirked six times, demonstrated challenging body language eight times, and appeared unaware of the camera once when he took a drink.  Clinton's responses to question one typified the way he visually responded to the two speakers.  Perot answered first a question about foreign markets and fair competition.  Clinton, who appeared in six camera shots while Perot spoke, sat on his stool, placed his hands between his knees, and tilted his head towards Perot as if Clinton were listening to each word Perot said.  When Bush's turn came, Clinton rose and managed to stand on the right side of the screen with Bush on the left.  During the three shots in which he appeared, Clinton raised his chin, adjusted his tie, and set his mouth lines, all three visual challenges to Bush and his stated positions.  The first Clinton smirk occurred on the fourth question as Bush discussed the needs of children.  The angle was almost an over-the shoulder, three-shot with Bush on the left, Perot in the middle, and Clinton on the right.  While Perot looked straight ahead, ignoring the camera position, Clinton turned his head to the left to look at the camera.  As Bush articulated what being president meant

to him, Clinton shook his head slightly in the negative and seemed to smile in amusement at Bush's words.  These examples are typical of the pattern of behavior Clinton demonstrated throughout this debate, as Table 2 indicates.  Clinton sent a visual message to the audience that he would listen to Perot but that he disagreed or directly challenged what President Bush said.


When he spoke, Clinton stood in a place on the stage that allowed the camera to show him with a flag in the background in at least one shot per question.  On every question, he kept his hand gestures small, keeping them within the tight frame of the television screen, and he was shown at least once per question at the complimentary camera angle described earlier.   Table 3 shows the consistency in Clinton's debate style.


We cannot know how or if the television audience decoded the visual aspects of Clinton's presentation in 1992.  The very process of testing could create an awareness that probably did not exist during the course of people watching the debate.  However, because Clinton consistently presented a visual byte from question to question, it seems fair to assume that he consciously took notice of camera placement and angles, and that he sought to manipulate the visual semiotics for their persuasive potential.


Bush and Perot          

Perot and Bush consistently ignored the television audience to address the Richmond audience.  An analysis of the 39 shots that were part of Question 3 from 1992 demonstrates the point.  The most common shot was a three-shot taken by a camera located on the right side of the candidates.  The sequence of 39 shots included 11 three-shots, which usually presented the back of Bush's head, Perot in profile, and Clinton sitting or standing looking into the camera.  While the three-shot was airing, the television audience could not see Bush's eyes and only half of Perot's face.  The audience could look into Clinton's eyes and read his expressions.  Clinton visually dominated these shots. 


When Clinton answered Question 3, we counted 13 shots.  A camera on the left side of the candidates showed a two-shot of Bush and Perot five times, a Clinton medium shot six times, and a medium shot of Bush twice.  Perot in the center stood too far back to be part of the two-shot and did not appear once while Clinton spoke.  Between the two-shot and the two close ups of Bush, the President had seven opportunities to show the television his reactions to Clinton's statements.  Only once did Bush react.  In the 10th shot, Bush rose to his feet to respond to criticism, talking over the top of Clinton's voice.  Bush's action was directed at Clinton, not the camera.


When answering Question 3, Bush ignored the camera to speak to the auditorium audience.  As it was throughout the debate, Bush's most common on-camera position when he spoke was to look out of the frame, usually to the right from the perspective of the television audience.  This profile shot meant that the audience at home could not clearly see his eyes and see only half of his face.  The angle allowed Bush to interact with the portions of the audience closest to him.


In the 10 shots shown when Perot answered the question, five of the shots were the three-shot already discussed.  The camera did not focus on Perot until the fifth shot, which was an over-the-shoulder from moderator Jessica Simpson into Perot's face.  In the seventh shot, Perot had his first medium shot; he looked out of the frame to the right.  The ninth shot was a medium shot of Perot looking off camera at the person who had asked the question.  The only other time during the 39-shot sequence of Question 3 that Perot's image was the prevalent one was the 13th shot of Bush's response.  The directors chose a close-up of Perot as he looked straight ahead without an expression on his face.


The visuals of Question 3 are a typical example of shots used throughout the 1992 debate.  At best, Bush and Perot did not hurt themselves when the camera caught them in neutral expressions looking at the live audience or into space.  Even when they were the speakers, they presented weak visuals to the television audience.  Their weak presentations are in marked contrast to the strong visual performance of Clinton. 


The 1996 Analysis

The 1996 analysis produced results similar to those found in 1992.  With Dole the only other speaker, the debate included twenty questions with the first speaker having the opportunity to reply to the second speaker's statements.  Clinton answered first on the odd numbered questions, giving him a response to Dole's statements.  Dole answered the even numbered questions first and, therefore, could reply to Clinton's statements.  Dole spoke thirty-one times, including his closing; Clinton the same.  During Dole's thirty-one responses, Clinton appeared in at least one shot on all but two occasions.  Clinton's most common response (22 times) was attentive listening, perhaps as a sign of respect for Dole and because Clinton held a huge lead in the political polls (Table 4).  Eleven times Clinton used challenging body language, but the smirk only crossed his lips three times.  Twice the camera caught Clinton off-guard as he took a drink.


On Question One about national unity Clinton challenged Dole's response through aggressive posturing when Dole answered first.  The camera shot aired had Clinton looking into the camera as Dole spoke while the shot frequently showed the back of Dole's head.  The camera zoomed in for a quick close up of Clinton as he smiled and nodded in agreement.  The camera pulled out to a two-shot, showing Clinton with hands in his pockets, chin up and eyes narrowed in a challenge.  Before cutting to another camera, the shot concluded with Dole talking out of the frame, Clinton's reaction available to the audience in a medium shot.  Except for the first two brief shots of his answer, Dole either shared the camera frame with Clinton or totally had the image turned over to his opponent.   During other questions, Clinton’s behavior showed intent and awareness of which camera was broadcasting.  On Question Three, Clinton had to move from behind the podium to its left side to remain in the frame.  By moving on Question Four, Clinton created a shot where his head and Dole's were side to side.  Dole moved on Question Five, forcing Clinton to move along with him.  During Question Nine, Clinton stepped closer to Dole as he spoke; as a result, the camera zoomed in on Clinton.  During Questions One, Ten, Fifteen, Eighteen, Nineteen, and Twenty, Clinton appeared alone in the frame while Dole spoke.  Because of the visual presence of Clinton (Table Four), Dole had only two opportunities, besides his opening, to control the image that the television audience viewed as he spoke.


Clinton worked equally hard when he spoke to control his visualization as Table Five shows.  Generally, Clinton took about five steps from the podium towards the audience when he spoke, allowing him to again offer the cameras a three-quarter, nose-angle shot, which aired during twenty-seven of his thirty-one speaking turns.  During his reply to Dole on Question Eight, his reply on Question Ten, and his answer to Question Eleven, Clinton appeared in profile.  The worst visual for Clinton (Question Twelve) showed the back of his head during an over-the-shoulder shot of Dole.   The best visual moment for Clinton came during Question Seventeen when Clinton, instead of walking towards the audience, walked behind the podiums and cornered Dole.  Clinton closed within intimate distance of Dole, constituting a visual challenge, and challenged him verbally to recognize that the two candidates agreed on retirement planning.  Dole squirmed and maneuvered for room while the camera showed the audience Clinton's physical dominance of the shot.   In all of his shots, Clinton again used small gestures, keeping them within the camera frame.  He did switch from predominately pointing with his left index finger and thumb, as he did in 1992, to holding his hands about fourteen inches apart, but the finger point was still evident in 1996.  

As in 1992, Clinton's actions on the stage in 1996 gave the television audience a visual byte.  Clinton could signal his general respect for Dole by listening attentively when he spoke, much as Clinton had done with Perot in 1992.  Clinton could also let the audience see when he disagreed with Dole by smirking or challenging Dole physically, a repeat of his performance against Bush.  By walking away from his podium when he spoke, Clinton appeared on television as a man speaking to the people.  His stage positioning allowed him to talk directly to the television viewers while they watched as the live audience listened to the words of the President of the United States.

As the speaker, Dole appeared in 206 shots, according to our count.  In 28 of those shots, Dole stood in profile, often looking out of the left side of the picture frame.  He would then turn his head and body until he was looking out of the right side of the picture frame.  Such a twisting movement made sense as he sought to retain eye contact with a large segment of the studio audience.  However, the twist made for a weak television image since the audience could see neither his eyes nor his face clearly and the camera operators had to adjust the framing.  Further, his hand gestures generally began around his belt and were visible to the television audience only when his hand flashed up from the bottom of the screen.


When Clinton was the primary speaker, Dole appeared in 45 of 182 shots.  Of the 45, seven times the camera left Clinton to show Dole and five more were split frames, showing both candidates.   Of those 45, seven times the camera showed him in the background biting his lip.  In comparison, his face remained neutral in all but two shots.  He smirked at one Clinton statement (Question 4); he seemed to be looking at Clinton at the time.  In the second instance (Question 5), Dole's expression indicated to us disagreement with a Clinton statement.  However, because Dole quickly looked down, Dole did not seem to be making his opinion known for the benefit of the television audience. Clinton's camera awareness and visual presentation to the television audience stood in sharp contrast to Dole, who remained focused on speaking to the live audience.  Just as he had done in 1992, Clinton used the town hall format to present strong visuals to the television audience while his opponents disregarded the visual images that were televised. 


For Clinton to create the television images we have shown he consistently used would have required only a basic understanding of television production.  Directors cut from one camera to another about every 10 to 15 seconds to give the appearance of movement and to distract from the dullness of the talking head.  During even a 45-second response, Clinton could anticipate three cuts; during a two-minute response, Clinton could anticipate eight to ten cuts.  With three or four major cameras providing most of the shots, Clinton could anticipate that two or three of the cameras would be used during his responses.  He blocks one camera’s angles and he is almost assured that the off-the-nose shot will be shown often if he placed himself between two cameras.  Meanwhile, the third camera on the far side of the room would picture him with either the flag or people in the background as he talks to them.  So unless the director wants a picture of Clinton’s ear, Clinton could give the director the kind of image that would look good on television.  Similarly, figuring out the angle when his opponents were talking would not require great skill, just anticipation.  The gestures and facial expressions could be practiced in advance, even anticipated when certain topics arose.  The consistency of Clinton’s performance within debates and between town hall debates is an indication that Clinton’s advance people prepared him for his television appearances and blocked out his moves.  Now that we know what Clinton did, an examination of the images will provide us with a rhetorical understanding of why Clinton and his team went to such efforts.


The Images8



Here we see Clinton positioning himself for the off-the-nose angle shot from the center camera.  If he steps forward towards the audience, that camera would show a profile.  The camera across the open space would show Clinton with the flag and people behind him.  Clinton is talking to the television audience; to whom in the audience is he talking?


Clinton stands in front of the flag with the people listening to him while the tilt of his head presents the off-the-nose shot.  Also note how tight his hand gestures are to his body, keeping the gestures within the frame of the camera.



Clinton gives the off-the-nose pose while finger pointing.  Note how his hand remains with the camera frame, even if the camera zooms in for a close up.  Perot, meanwhile, presents neutral body language as Clinton speaks.


Clinton goes for the tie, lifts his chin, sets his jaw, and locks his gaze while Bush talks, challenging the President’s words without saying a word.  Clinton’s actions would present a counter argument to Bush’s statements while providing a distraction for the listening audience.



Clinton laughs at Bush’s comments, providing a visual rebuttal.  Perot seems to be ignoring the camera.  Clinton would use that laugh again four years later against Dole.


In contrast, Clinton listens respectfully as Perot talks.  His position allows him to dominate the televised image.  If Clinton does not lean forward, Perot would block Clinton’s face.



Bush puts himself into a position where none of the camera angles are going to show him effectively.  The television audience is left with watching his ear and the collar of his suit.




Clinton begins in this position and then shifts…



…to this position as Dole moves.  The new position provided a better opportunity to stand behind Dole if the right floor camera came on.


Clinton uses the challenging look to counter Dole, just as he used it four years early against Bush.



Here is the Clinton smirk while Dole talks to the audience.  Clinton used the smirk in both town hall debates.


Clinton strikes the off-the-nose camera pose four years after the first debate.  The audience could see his eyes clearly while he spoke.  By walking forward about five steps, Clinton removed Dole from the camera frame and set up this pose.



Compare the quality of the Clinton image above to this image of Dole, which hides his eyes from the television audience.  Dole is busy speaking to the debate audience and not the television audience.


In 1992 and 1996 we have the introduction of an astute media manipulator who incorporated a personal dimension—simplicity—and a visual dimension into his campaign strategies.  The personal dimension and argumentative simplicity ("It’s the economy stupid") were not new as Reagan political adviser Roger Ailes (1988) notes in his book, You Are the Message.  The dimension not anticipated by Ailes was the visual dimension. Clinton’s understanding of the camera angles helped him to “strike a pose” in ways that the other candidates did not anticipate.  Nor did the viewing public consciously take notice or they may have reacted negatively to Clinton manipulation.  The visual byte allowed Clinton to add a dimension to the interaction with the audience that gave him “one up” against his opponents.  Bush looked uncomfortable when he was not looking at his watch.  Perot appeared to be lost, and Dole was his usual “stiff” self. 


Clinton’s ability to be included in the camera shots in ’92 and ’96 gave him the added dimension of presenting his verbal argument in a very simple way: either he agreed with the other person, was amused by the person, or he strongly disagreed with the other person.  This gave him an “added voice” in the debates, especially since he understood the camera angles and was able to manipulate them such that his opponents were not in a position—literally—to use the visual channel.


Clinton clearly won the “image war” in both town hall debates, not so much because he was so verbally astute but because he manipulated the images while his opponents did not.  This does not mean that the audience had to understand his “claims” or “counter claims” or evidence or chain of reasoning.  None of this mattered as much because none of the other candidates even took the time to try to control this dimension of the audience interaction in the same way that Clinton controlled it. 



Candidate Bill Clinton made a conscious effort to maximize his visual impact during the 1992 and 1996 town hall debates. He framed himself in front of the American flag (1992) and with the audience (1996) to create a positive image, and he freely used body language to reinforce his points. Of greater note, he strategically worked his way into the camera shot when his opponents spoke, employing facial expressions and gestures to distract viewers and raise doubts in their assessments of the opponents' statements. These visual bytes were concise, meaningful and expertly crafted for the television medium. Yet the question remains, did they have impact?

Clinton's visual bytes must be seen as a persuasion strategy, yet they have escaped the attention of scholars, journalists and pollsters thus far. We already know politicians before and after election make great use of visual strategies at party conventions,9 public speeches and media events, and certainly in their television ads, but the behavior here is thoroughly and obviously scripted. Even casual viewers can recognize the outright choreography inserted into these events, yet they are likely not aware of the coaching and practice that supported Clinton's performance in the seemingly unscripted town hall debates. The candidate indeed had to literally "think on his feet" in these encounters.  Facial expressions and body movements had been reviewed by his media consultants and judged for their potential effect. For example, his 1992 visual strategy conveyed respectful acceptance of Perot's agenda (not wanting to alienate fence-sitters attracted by the Texan's populism) while openly combating the vulnerable incumbent's responses (Table 2). Likewise, in 1996, he generally agreed with Bob Dole, but peppered in visual challenges in strategic places. As Table 4 shows, Clinton respectfully listened on contentious issues (gay rights, family leave, capital gains, etc.), but he offered visual challenges on some key issues marked by Democratic and Republican convergence (military pay, balancing the budget, 10 and welfare reform11). Without having to say anything, Clinton may have distracted undecided voters from Dole's arguments and presented counter positions.

Drawing viewers' attention to non-verbal strategies is important, not just for the sake of research, but to help the public determine what role they want the visual byte to play in political discourse. Clinton's town hall performances, especially in 1992, were compelling partly because viewers were not prepared to process non-verbal cues. If pollsters and analysts encouraged viewers to consider the value of the visual byte, through post-debate phone polls or in focus groups (where participants may or may not be clued in to visual strategies before watching the video), we could learn if this aspect has value beyond academic interest.                                   

The public may ultimately judge the visual byte to be instructive, in which case it would add to the criteria of candidate evaluations. If they judge it to be intrusive and manipulative, sponsors and networks could acknowledge its presence more directly and even possibly regulate it. Such efforts may inhibit the liberating qualities of town hall debates, but with public opinion in mind the decision could be justified as preserving the integrity of the "people's debate." No matter what is concluded, analysts should not leave it to candidates and their operatives to discover the visual byte's impact on political discourse.

Ultimately, the visual byte may be less about its effectiveness as a political tool of persuasion and more about its very existence.  Clinton's use of imagery recalls the arguments of ancient Greek orators over Sophism.  Does it really matter what argument is made as long as the delivery persuades the audience?  Clinton and his campaign team did not intend for the visual byte to create a better understanding of the issues on which the electorate should consider in selecting a  president.  The visual byte was not intended to give insight into the character or the values of the candidate.  Clinton outsmarted Perot, Bush, and Dole.  While they were busy engaging the live audience in a discourse about the future of the United States, Clinton engaged the cameras in a semiotics discourse.  While Clinton's words may have sought to lead the people at home through the facts and logic of Clinton's campaign, Clinton's actions took advantage of the rules of the television game.

Any student of American politics would be naïve to think that politics has ever been totally about substance over form.  William Henry Harrison used the corn liquor jug and the nickname "Tippecanoe" to win the presidency in 1840.  George Washington may have run the last campaign of substance, and he had no serious opposition.  However, the creation of presidential debates held out the promise of something more, something more on the order of the Lincoln-Douglas debates than selling American politicians as laundry detergent.  For those voters who truly cared about the qualities of the person they were going to vote for to be the next president, the presidential debates were a format where voters could judge candidates by what they said and how they said it.  No doubt for many viewers, the debates were about the clever sound bytes.  Still the potential remained inherent in the debate format where substance could be found for those voters who listened with consideration.  The visual byte brings the sophism of the 30-second soap commercials to the debates, cheapening them in the process until the public learns to consciously read the visual byte.


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End Notes

1Town hall debates are moderated, though this individual’s job has mainly been to balance the content of questions and make sure different parts of the audience get to participate.

2 See Hellweg, Pfau & Brydon (1992, 17-18) for a brief discussion of the Commission’s role and controversies surrounding it.

3 We may safely say that the town hall and any other innovations have not helped draw more Americans to their television sets for presidential debates. The lone Carter-Reagan debate of 1980 was the high point in debate viewership with 81 million citizens tuned in. That number dropped to about 66 million for each of the 1984, 1988 and 1992 debates. The 1996 and 2000 debates were viewed by only an average of 39 million Americans.

4 In 2000, George W. Bush rejected the Commission’s proposed schedule and offered instead to debate Al Gore on network talk shows. He ultimately backed down from this demand (Wayne 2001, 243).

5 Reagan’s and Bentsen’s statements were not chance utterances. Debate preparation for candidates favors the strategic use of catchy sound bytes (Schroeder 2000, 52-56) and media-ready anecdotes (Hellweg, Pfau & Brydon 1992, 78-79).

6 Even audience cutaways are routinely avoided, to prevent visible reactions from biasing viewer’s impressions of the debaters.

7 Kraus (2000) provides a diagram showing where the cameras were located (121).

8 More photos can be seen at

9 See Wayne 2001, 179-181 for a discussion of the "theater" aspect of conventions.

10 Perot's candidacy in 1992 (and somewhat in 1996) pushed both mainstream parties to promise action on the deficit. With Americans accustomed to divided party control of the White House and Congress, candidates knew that the public demanded an end to partisan budget gridlock in favor of Perot's "common sense" fiscal policy.

11 Recall Clinton's longstanding pledge to "end welfare as we know it," putting him at odds with many in his own party.

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