They Called Her Photo Op Palin

Sarah Palin is the culmination of a wider social trend, the photo op

When she first stepped onto the national stage—beyond just questioning the efficacy (or rather, existence) of his plans—Sarah Palin tried to call Barack Obama out for manufacturing his image. “When the roar of the crowd fades away…when the stadium lights go out, and those Styrofoam Greek columns are hauled back to some studio lot—what exactly is our opponent’s plan?” she asked in her speech at the Republican National Convention. This line was a calculated attempt to puncture Obama’s projected character, to expose the shaping, the framing taking place behind the scenes, and make clear to the world the hollowness of not just “The One’s” message, but of his persona too.

Unlikely as it might seem, 40 years ago that maneuver would have been inconceivable. Yes, politicians have always tried to bring each other’s authenticity into doubt, but what Palin did during the convention was something distinct from the mere questioning of her opponent’s credibility. She did not try to impugn Obama’s credentials but rather to lay bare the artifice in his very carefully choreographed convention. In short, she tried to expose his speech as a photo-op.

The term “photo-op” or rather, “photo opportunity,” was first coined by John Hart of CBS News with regard to Richard Nixon’s 1968 campaign tactics. It was not originally a neutral term; as Hart said, “In 1968, I thought [the photo opportunity] was a joke.” And yet, since then they have become more and more the norm. Newsweek photographer Arthur Grace wrote in his 1988 book, “Choose Me: Portraits of a Presidential Race,” “Political campaigns are now carefully staged for the picture media. They are scripted, choreographed and sanitized. Access to reality has been severely limited. Today politicians still want the cameras to project their messages but they want it done on their terms and almost never in a natural, spontaneous way.”

Grace’s gripes obscure the fact that, as Harvard Professor Kiku Adatto details in her recent book, “Picture Perfect: Life in the Age of the Photo Op,” this transformation could not have occurred without the media’s complicity. An industry more concerned with ratings than information, more conscious of sizzle than substance, sold the public propaganda that they had received straight from the campaigns. They unmistakably opted to create great entertainment with negligible journalistic content. It is this focus on the images rather than the stances of political candidates that Adatto calls “photo-op culture.”

It was this culture that Palin’s comment was playing into. It is hardly surprising that she uses the language of photo-op culture, considering the extent to which she is immersed in it—considering that she is, perhaps, the culmination of it.

The purpose of a photo-op is to present an image that expresses a certain message about the candidate. Michael Dukakis riding the tank was supposed to show that he was a manly man for the military, not just a liberal Massachusetts sissy. George W. Bush’s frequent photographs in a cowboy hat tapped into the US’s cultural myth of the cowboy as a hero, as resourceful, as protecting, as the archetypal compassionate conservative.

Sarah Palin needs no framing. She herself is the symbol. She is the photo-op. She was tapped for the ticket, not because of anything she has done necessarily, but in large part for how she looks and what she represents. A beauty pageant contestant during her younger years and mother of five, she has a face for politics and the wholesome look that gets the middle of the country fired up. The fact that she’s a woman, seen as a draw for disgruntled Hillary supporters and conservative women alike, certainly played a role in her selection, too.

Palin even speaks in sound bites. As Peggy Noonan wrote in The Wall Street Journal, “She does not speak seriously but attempts to excite sensation.” As her interviews with Charles Gibson and Katie Couric have shown, when pressed beyond the clever quip she is at a loss for words. But, like the news media loop, she is a worshipful student of the inflammatory sentence (i.e., the suggestion that Barack Obama has been “palling around with terrorists” or wants to “experiment with socialism”) certain to seize the public’s attention.

And yet, just like the overplayed photo-ops whose intended meaning is forgotten as the glitches emerge with every repeated viewing (Dukakis’s tank experiment that torpedoed his campaign, for example) Palin has lost control of her own significance. In the wake of news that her two-month-old wardrobe is worth more than most Americans’ yearly incomes and that she abused her gubernatorial powers, her honest hockey-mom façade seems to have cracked. And exposed underneath—well—there just doesn’t seem to be all that much.

Sanders I. Bernstein ’10, a Crimson arts editor, is a social studies concentrator in Dunster House.