RHETA GRIMSLEY JOHNSON: Visual-age politics has distorted our judgement

By Rheta Grimsley Johnson

If you can’t stand the heat, get your teapot out of the kitchen.
I don’t understand the ballyhoo over Michele Bachmann’s Newsweek cover photo. I don’t understand why Newsweek gave her the cover photo, but that’s beside the point I want to make here.
It’s a rather standard-issue mug shot, with Bachmann’s brows slightly arched over ample mascara and wide-open eyes. She’s smiling.
It’s not the most exciting or original photograph I’ve ever seen on Newsweek’s cover, but as garden variety newsmakers go, she looks OK. This is Newsweek, not Vanity Fair, after all.
Some are calling the photo unflattering and sexist. Sexist, because it’s unflattering.
I think what’s sexist is to be discussing the photo in terms of how attractive or unattractive it looks. We’re searching for a president, not the cover girl for Sports Illustrated’s swimsuit issue.
It makes Bachmann look halfway intelligent, which could raise questions of trick photography, but not media bias. Those who say it makes her appear deranged must know something I don’t.
If the photo is bad – and I can’t believe that’s the worst photo ever taken of her – maybe it will serve to remind voters that you shouldn’t choose a candidate based on looks. Maybe some who were previously taken with her comeliness will discover her politics, which happen to be abhorrent.
As long as there have been politicians running for office and news photographers running with cameras, there have been unflattering shots of politicians, liberal and conservative. Ever see an unflattering photo of Hillary Clinton? Eleanor Roosevelt? Ronald Reagan or Barack Obama?
It’s a shame, really, that we ever see any of the candidates’ faces before we hear their views. Same as the music video has ruined music, television exposure has trashed campaigning. It gives pretty the advantage over witty, attractive the edge over smart. It makes smart men like John McCain think a nitwit like Sarah Palin can help him win a national election.
Every now and then you get good looks and keen brain in the same package. It happens. But leadership doesn’t require GQ looks. Think Winston Churchill. For every handsome John Kennedy you get a bald Dwight Eisenhower. For every classic Franklin Roosevelt you get an ordinary Harry Truman. Most successful politicians used to appear in the Everyman mold. We trusted that.
Not so in the visual age. We want everyone in the public eye to be an eyeful. We want movie star looks and pithy rejoinders. We care nothing about depth and substance and the – dare I say it? – ability to run the country.
This is not the problem of one party. The entire U.S. political experience has been reduced to a fashion show and a shouting match. Campaigns are extended sports events with team colors, handsome quarterbacks and glamorous cheerleaders.
Pity we can’t return to the days of yesteryear when a photographer caught aristocratic Adlai Stevenson with a hole in his shoe. His campaign, which had struggled to give its brainy candidate more folksy appeal, embraced that shot.
As Adlai said, better a hole in a shoe than a hole in the head.
Syndicated columnist and author Rheta Grimsley Johnson lives near Iuka. Contact her at Iuka, MS 38852.