We can work it out: television and the pumped-up politics of the election

Kevin Rudd follows a long line of male politicians exercising as part of their pitch to voters. What does this tell us about masculinity, the media and politics? AAP/Lyndon Mechielsen

Nothing summarised a bad week - indeed, a bad election campaign - for prime minister Kevin Rudd better than Tuesday’s Brisbane workout. A camera-friendly “power walk” was interrupted by insults from larrikin boxercisers, who taunted the Labor leader for shirking “real exercise”. Yet again, a good idea unravelled on television.

This is not simply an unfortunate incident that cameras happened to catch as the prime minister took his morning constitutional. Rudd was ambushed by two things. First, television’s capacity for transforming public spaces into political theatre. Second, the workout, which has a lead role in the show.

Sadly, some people play the part better than others. Personality politics favours the select few who can underwrite authenticity with their bodies. Live media are easier to handle for figures who are up to the task. That’s why - to democracy’s chagrin - media politics is a buffed out game.

It isn’t all about acting. US senator Daniel Inouye enjoyed a political career that saw him retain office from 1963 until his death in 2012. Anyone who doubted his patriotism needed only to gaze at his missing left arm. During World War Two, Inouye had prised a live grenade from his own partially severed hand, in the midst of a one-man charge on a German gun emplacement. No-one ever yelled abuse at him.

US president Barack Obama is known for his love of playing basketball. EPA/Mark Wilson

Wounded bodies have symbolised many recent US presidential hopefuls: Bob Dole, Bob Kerrey, John Kerry and John McCain, for instance. Their stories of physical courage helped us know them as people. Ultimately, this reinforces that fact that, in mediated elections, personality counts.

Working out is a substitute for contenders who don’t have heroism in their locker. Much was made of Tony Blair’s penchant for pumping iron. Barack Obama happily paraded his muscular torso in 2008. Even Vladimir Putin isn’t above flipping his pecs for the cameras. Muscles prove politicians are fit for the job.

Russian president Vladimir Putin is a keen outdoorsman - and enjoys having his photo taken while doing so. EPA/Alexey Druzhinyn

Considering global trends in media elections, then, Kevin Rudd was always going to have an image problem. And the challenge gets bigger when you add in the perils of testing authenticity on the streets. Exercising takes politicians into ordinary places, where they meet voters without the benefits of scripts or moderators. Reputations are earned or ruined when these encounters are televised.

Some people think George Bush Sr lost the 1992 US presidential election in the supermarket. Innocently trying to buy groceries, Bush was taken aback by the presence of a barcode scanner. Obviously, the president hadn’t been shopping for years. How could he possibly understand ordinary Americans?

In the UK, one-time rising Tory star Michael Portillo was a far better customer. In 2003, Portillo travelled to the city of Liverpool, to film a TV documentary on what it was like to live a working class life. He did this by taking a job in a budget supermarket. Shopping after his shift, a sceptic asked Portillo what on earth he was doing. The deadpan reply - “I’m buying a chicken” - evaded the accusation of spin, and showed a keen knack for thinking on his feet. No George Bush moment there. On such trivial occasions trust is won, especially in the face of a medium that depends on the presentation of ordinary people and ordinary life.

Putting all of this together, televised politics is a game for droll triathletes who can deal with the unexpected. So it isn’t surprising that Kevin Rudd came unstuck on a nondescript cyle path. He could have saved face with a witty riposte - perhaps a quick “I will if you try real boxing mate” - but he didn’t. Double fail, media-wise. Such a thing couldn’t happen to Tony Abbott.

The public workout is an obligatory scene where television turns politics into entertainment. The political body in motion delivers the surprises viewers love. Like it or not, performing physical vigour for a live audience is a handy way to prove your mettle. Better to train with the troops, as Abbott did, than just pop in to say hi.

Tony Abbott exercised at an army barracks in Darwin earlier in the campaign. AAP/Mike Bowers

So, the take-home conclusions: if you aren’t good at working out, don’t do it in public, shape up, or surrender the stage to others who can play the part. This “new” lesson underlines an “old” fear about television: the medium teaches that the world is run by powerful people, who tend to be particular sorts of men. Journalists have noted this before. When UK prime minister Gordon Brown became distressed during an ill-advised jog for the cameras, commentators observed how needless the stunt was.

Reporters noted that the only endurance event required of political leaders is long distance arse-sitting. But this fact doesn’t suit televised personality politics. So it doesn’t count.