Critics of beauty pageants and politics often share the same complaints. Neither group likes the fact that winners are often chosen for style over substance.
Pageant queens tend to need a certain look and have to have a real hook for what their platform will be when chosen to wear the sash at photo ops for a year.
Politicians also tend to need a look to win and also need some hook to separate their platform from another.
And like a Miss America contestant, who would need a miracle to overcome a stumble in the swimsuit competition, when a candidate has a bad photo op, the results can be tragic.
There are many ideas that seemed good at the time that have embarrassed candidates.
Bill Clinton jogging to a McDonalds comes to mind. The media and even Saturday Night Live had a lot of fun with that exercise plan. Sure the former president continued to win after he left office by becoming a gaunt vegan, but at the time it was pretty funny.
George H.W. Bush showed that being out of touch is something to worry about. Who can forget the elder Bush staring at amazement at the supermarket scanner technology that had been in use for years? I bet he would love the self-checkout lanes that stores use now.
The younger Bush, George W. also had a faux pas when he posed on a battleship with a “Mission Accomplished” sign emblazoned above him. The mission we celebrated accomplishing is still being accomplished today. He just got a little anxious.
Perhaps the most notable and devastating photo op backfire was 25 years ago when Michael Dukakis mounted an M1A1 tank and took aim on the electorate.
In a piece in Politico Magazine this weekend, Josh King – who was on the campaign staff for Dukakis and went on to work in the Clinton White House – detailed how the event was planned and how no one was able to change the plan even after they saw it going badly.
King said the event was not like the Bush “Mission Accomplished” banner or Clinton jogging to a fast food restaurant situations. It wasn’t determined later to be an opportunity for opponents. Reporters were openly laughing at the diminutive Democratic as he rode around in a tank trying to look more like a Commander in Chief during a race in which his strength on National defense policy was going to be an issue.
To say the tank idea backfired is a bad joke. To say it blew up in his face is in equally poor taste so I won’t use either of those jokes here.
Page 2 of 2 - I will say that he may have been the first person wearing a tie in a Windsor knot to ride in an M1A1. At least wear the costume if you are going to play the part.
Events like this are small until they become part of a narrative.
Dukakis had a 17-point lead when he climbed aboard that tank.
By the time Bush’s people were finished with the barrage of ads and cute quips in debates, that lead was gone.
They had a sidebar campaign running alongside his silly soldier campaign. Dukakis had given Willie Horton, a murderer, a weekend furlough. Surprisingly, this murderer could not be trusted and never returned from his weekend furlough until he had assaulted and raped a woman. After being caught, he returned to the prison and helped barricade the road to the White House for Dukakis.
The two items were big enough and fit so well in a storyline that there was no way for the Massachusetts Governor to overcome them.
When polls shift from one candidate to another, it is often difficult to figure out exactly why until the election is over. But in 1988, everyone who saw Dukakis in that tank immediately knew that his campaign was going in a completely different kind of tank.
There are all kinds of rules around campaigns now that could all be rewritten under one golden rule. Never put anything on your head. Never wear an outfit. Never dance.
All of these are good rules for politicians.
But they can all be summed up with one rule: Be yourself.
The problems come when candidates try to be something they aren’t in order to strengthen a weak spot. It never works.
Politicians would discover that voters are far more understanding and forgiving of flaws when you don’t try to hide them.
Kent Bush is the publisher of the Butler County Times Gazette and can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org