It’s a problem that’s gotten worse over time. It may not be the reality for the masses of American citizens who, quite frankly, have better things to do than keep up with politics, but words will always be more important than images when making educated political decisions. Images may be worth a thousand words, but those words are not well constructed. In fact, they have a terrible track record.
It all began in the 1960 presidential debates – an event that later became a classic piece of Americana, though not because of the words. John F. Kennedy stood behind his podium, effusing a natural charm unparalleled until Bill Clinton entered the political realm decades later. Richard Nixon, seeming destitute in comparison, didn’t look good enough to be leader of the free world. It was the first nationally televised presidential election, and Kennedy won. It was the beginning of the end of a political environment based on ideas, and the birth of one based on images.
Fast forward to 1988. Michael Dukakis was chosen as the prime Democrat to run against Republican candidate George H. W. Bush. In an ill-advised effort to come across as a Democrat who was militarily adept, he posed in a tank, complete with an oversized, rather clumsy looking helmet. Dukakis looked out of place and awkward, and the photo-op backfired, making him look like a joke. In contemporary political thinking, “Dukakis on the tank” has become lingo for backfired photo opportunities.
Even more than misplaced words – of which politicians on both sides of the aisle have had their fair share – the war of images has been pushed to the forefront.
Even wars can take a backseat to the war of images. George W. Bush landed on the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln in 2003 in a flight suit that conspicuously emphasized his anatomical assets. The president was photographed shaking hands with various military officers. Most memorably, the sign above him on the tower of the aircraft carrier read “Mission Accomplished.” With American involvement in Iraq maintained three years later, the picture still provides one of the most acute opportunities for Democrats to question President Bush’s record on national security. The pictures are more potent an argument than any rhetoric Bush has uttered.
So when video of Rush Limbaugh was shown on Fox News – in which he bashed Michael J. Fox for endorsing candidates who support embryonic stem cell research – the images weren’t complimentary for Limbaugh. You see, Fox clearly – and very sympathetically – suffers from a catastrophic case of Parkinson’s disease, so refuting him in an aggressive way didn’t look good for Limbaugh. It wouldn’t look good for anyone.
As Greg Kandra of CBS News wrote in a recent piece, Limbaugh looked like “a big fat guy making fun of a little skinny guy – a sick little skinny guy, at that.”
Fox won the war of images clearly and resoundingly.
It is at this point where things become a little twisted. Kandra wrote that the Limbaugh/Fox conflict is “about image and perception, more than fact and argument.” Kandra insinuates that, regardless of the merits of Limbaugh’s argument, Rush still wasn’t right. I say he was right, even though I don’t agree with him. In fact, I say he did himself a marvelous service.
Limbaugh is a bully intentionally. His image of the chubby, wealthy, overconfident bully – complete with a fine cigar – is Limbaugh’s stock in trade. Limbaugh’s bullying is the reason people listen, as well as why others hate him. Michael J. Fox was just another outlet for Limbaugh’s outrageous – and highly profitable – personality.
Not only that, but Limbaugh was right to criticize the devolution of political rhetoric to mere pictures, and the reasons why are the political “solutions” that arise because of it. Images of poor Americans bring about government-mandated raises to the minimum wage, which fail to help – and even hurt – those very same impoverished people.
Michael Moore portrayed welfare-to-work programs as incompetent and slavish in his documentary Bowling for Columbine, yet it has been realized a decade later that American welfare reform was so successful that many European nations are now copying it. Declaring a mission accomplished before the job was done has led to the idea that the job can’t be done at all, and America should just quit because it’s taken some shots on the chin.
And the most ironic thing about the transformation of politics into a war of images? Rush was wrong about embryonic stem cell research. If the focus wasn’t on the fact that Limbaugh looked like a bully, people might find that his argument was nonsense in the first place.
Jordan Capobianco is a senior majoring in English literature.