In 1960, television was said to be at least partly responsible for John F. Kennedy, Jr.’s defeat of Richard M. Nixon for President of the United States. Despite the fact that Kennedy was younger and less experienced, as well as hampered by being Roman Catholic, he fared better under the glare of television cameras than did Nixon, who looked sweaty and ill at ease during the televised debates. (“The Election of 1960,” us history.org)
Since then, appearance has become ever more important in politics. Candidates and government officials are constantly being photographed and videotaped. Everything from their hairstyles to the timber of their voices is scrutinized. And the image they project becomes more important than the reality of who they are and what they can do (or have done) for the country.
Pundits use the term “optics” to describe how good or bad a politician looks in a situation. Just this morning, Joe Scarborough of MSNBC was complaining that President Obama attended a baseball game in Cuba after the terrorist attacks in Brussels, Belgium. His main concern was the optics – that it didn’t look good for the president to be enjoying himself at a time like this. Former President George W. Bush came under similar criticism when, after learning about the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center, he calmly went back to reading a book to a group of schoolchildren. Shouldn’t we care more about what our political leaders are doing than about their image?
The need to be entertained above all has brought us the candidacy of Donald Trump. He reminds me of the character Chance, the gardener, in Jerzy Kosinski’s satire Being There. When Chance’s wealthy employer dies, Chance dresses in the deceased man’s clothes and is mistaken for a wealthy man named Chauncey Gardiner. Chance is simple-minded and talks mostly about gardening. His simple statements are taken as great pearls of wisdom by the movers and shakers of society, and he finds himself being considered a candidate for president. Chance’s appearance and the simplistic sound bites he utters make him the ideal modern candidate.
Like Chance, Donald Trump has no real platform or policy ideas. He simply spouts off his opinions with no filter and conveys his own sense of importance. His empty promise to “make America great again” has obviously been effective, though. He is the frontrunner and heir apparent to the Republican nomination for president.
My mother told me that when Franklin D. Roosevelt was president, many people had no idea he was in a wheelchair. There were no television cameras dogging him wherever he went, and photographs of his wheelchair were discouraged and often outright forbidden. (Matthew Pressman, “The Myth of FDR’s Secret Disability,” Time, July 12, 2013) It’s interesting to ponder how well received he would have been in that day and age if he had appeared disabled in the public eye. Yet FDR is remembered for his actions during World War II and the Great Depression, for what he accomplished, not how he looked.
Shouldn’t that be our standard for our political figures today?