Speaker wasn't at best in his prime-time debut CONTRACT WITH AMERICA -- AND BEYOND

April 08, 1995|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Television Critic

Newt Gingrich is great on C-SPAN and flat out terrific on the Sunday morning network public affairs shows where he can parry and thrust, lob those verbal hand grenades and generally run hot at the mouth.

But last night he brought his act to the cooler climes of prime time in an event without precedent for a House speaker and, in television terms, he simply was a player who wasn't quite ready.

Before Mr. Gingrich tries to completely redesign government as promised, he needs to find a better camera team and director for his speeches about how he's going to do that.

Last night's staging and direction were awful. And, instead of giving viewers the image of a vital and vigorous leader brimming with new ideas, what the pictures mainly showed was a guy in a suit coat that he could hardly button. And that visual image will surely translate into the concept of "fat cat" for some viewers.

The directors and stage managers of last night's telecast from the speaker's office seem to have started with a pretty good idea in terms of imagery. They sat Mr. Gingrich on the edge of his desk (read: active and vital). Over the speaker's left shoulder, viewers saw an American flag (read: patriot). While over his right shoulder were the steps of the Capitol seen through a window (read: "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington").

But, then, to keep all those images in the frame, they had to pull the cameras back to such a depth that we saw Mr. Gingrich from just below his waist through most of the speech. It was not a pretty sight. Mr. Gingrich has a thick midsection, which looked even thicker in the position he was sitting.

On the other hand, Mr. Gingrich has a wonderful television face: impish mouth, expressive eyes that can twinkle one moment and then shift to deep and penetrating the next, thick eyebrows and a healthy head of rich, gray hair that shines under TV lights.

The camera likes his face, and a smart director would have

stayed on that face all night in close-ups of varying depth.

In the grammar of TV imagery, Mr. Gingrich's face says this is a smart, savvy, lively, vigorous, maybe even friendly fellow with leadership written all over him.

As for Mr. Gingrich's performance itself, that, too, is going to need more work if it is going to light up prime time the way the speaker sizzles on talk shows and the floor of Congress.

Mr. Gingrich started out tense, stumbling over a few words and initially breaking into a tight little smile a couple of times early on that would have better suited Jack Nicholson in "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" than someone who wants lead the country. He got much better as he got into the speech and relaxed.

Last night's television performance was not a disaster by any stretch of the imagination. And Mr. Gingrich uses C-SPAN and the talk shows so well, it seems safe to assume he'll eventually master the syntax of prime-time success.

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