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One of the great scenes in American literature centers on a baby’s bottom.
Mayoral candidate and political newcomer Kevin McClusky, is seeking to unseat the experienced, dubiously ethical incumbent, Frank Skeffington. McClusky favors the new medium of television. One television interview features the entire McClusky family. In our scene, the show is being viewed by a disloyal Skeffington supporter, Festus Garvey.
McClusky’s baby daughter, Valerie, “toddles over to her father and, in the process of hauling herself up onto her father’s knee, seems to get stuck midway. She struggles to pull herself up, her little dress shoots up in the back, and the camera is focused for a long, dominant moment on the cunning sight of the little backside, encased in little rubber pants. It is a touching and comic sight...
“’Oh, by God that’s good!” Festus Garvey cried in admiration...By God the little behind is worth a thousand votes in the pocket. What decent mother could vote against the lovin’ father of that little behind?’”
Edwin O’Connor, in The Last Hurrah, understood an essential political truth back in 1956.
Elections produce images that can possess great power. Whether they occur spontaneously, which is rare now, or are ginned up, images can connect with voters at an emotional level that policies, positions and platforms simply don’t.
The current presidential campaign has already produced a few. Who will forget the image, during Sarah Palin’s Republican convention speech, of Palin’s daughter, Piper, licking her hand and smoothing baby brother Trig’s hair?
By God, that was good!
I cite Palin because she is winning the images battle.
Forgetting about politics, you’ve got to admit that the reaction in elite media and entertainment circles against Sarah Palin as vice presidential choice of John McCain, well it borders on hysteria. Hard as they throw dirt at her, the more popular she seems to grow. An outburst by actor Alec Baldwin, whose tastelessness has acquired a kind of grandeur, probably gained Palin 10 counties.
One reason is those images. She’s on Newsweek’s cover with a shotgun over her shoulder, for Pete’s sake. Inside, she’s wrapped in a gigantic Old Glory. She’s in the new WSJ. magazine from the Wall Street Journal running on a beach, ponytail bobbing.
And there’s Piper smoothing Trig’s little head.
Nobody’s passionate about Sen. Joe Biden, Barack Obama’s running mate. Biden? Older white guy—are those hair implants?
John F. Kennedy replays now, in our heads, playing touch football, sailing, walking barefoot on the beach, bending to kiss his stroke-stilled father’s pate. Richard Nixon will always have a sweaty chin, but he squeaked by years later, saved by live television of cops whacking away on kids outside the ’68 Democratic convention. Wasn’t that the year Ed Muskie shed a tear, or seemed to, on the steps of the Manchester Union Leader? (He walked on the beach, but in business suit and dress shoes.) George H.W. Bush glanced at his watch during a debate with Bill Clinton.
Barack Obama hasn’t really produced much in the way of imagery. If anything, one thinks of detachment. In his big rally speeches, in Germany and Denver, the dominant image is of a man walking alone up a ramp to the rostrum, at the crowd but apart from it. He’s a cool dude, but he is a man more of smooth words than arresting images. John McCain’s power images consist of black and white footage depicting his Vietnam services years, including his captivity in the Hanoi Hilton. They don’t seem to have moved groups of voters the way Palin’s imagery has.
Images by themselves don’t decide elections. Voters are emotional, true, but only to a point. They also possess a rational side. In a close election like this one, imagery might nudge it.
McClusky beat Skeffington.