Chris Kaufman / Marysville Appeal-Democrat

Gov. Jerry Brown, in a red flannel shirt, checks out one of the tractors at the Colusa Farm Show. Brown is trying to win rural support for his $14 billion Delta water plan.

Viewpoints: Voters aren't hoodwinked with photo ops

Published: Saturday, Feb. 16, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 11A

Maybe you saw the picture of Jerry Brown the other day, decked out in a red flannel work shirt and climbing around on a John Deere at the Colusa County farm show.

I seriously doubt whether the governor had ever been on a tractor before, but it made for what they call in the political trade a "nice photo op" and was meant to convey "just a regular guy" image to the farm crowd he was trying to impress.

It most certainly didn't work. The Colusa farmers still don't like his water diversion plan. But politicians as a class can't seem to resist the allure of pandering to one voting bloc or the other by trying to be something they are not.

Another recent and somewhat ridiculous photo, released by the White House, showed President Barack Obama aiming down range with a shotgun, ostensibly while skeet shooting at Camp David. It apparently was designed to quiet all the chatter from the pro-gun folks that he was some kind of anti-gun fanatic who wants to take away their weapons.

Again, it most certainly didn't work. The Gun Owners of America and the National Rifle Association did not rush out to endorse gun registration or Obama's proposed clampdown on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines.

But one of the prerequisites of running for political office, aside from having a big ego, is the ability to shamelessly become a chameleon, depending on the audience or the political needs of the moment.

That's why you see presidential candidates more accustomed to fine dining and good wine munching on corn dogs at the Iowa State Fair every four years, or showing up in blue jeans and open collar shirt and trying out their "y'all" accent on Southern audiences, as Mitt Romney did so awkwardly in last fall's campaign.

It would be hard to top Michael Dukakis, who never served in the military but tried to establish his military bona fides in 1988 by taking a ride in a tank. He stuck his head out of the turret and looked goofy in a tank commander's helmet. The resulting photo became a running campaign joke.

A pollster friend of mine says politicians behave the way they do because they think voters are naive and unsophisticated at best, stupid at worst. That no doubt is true for a good many, but voters also are discerning enough to know when they are being hoodwinked, even if they support the candidate doing the hoodwinking.

George W. Bush flew in a fighter jet onto the deck of an aircraft carrier off the coast of San Diego, deplaned in his flight suit with his helmet under his arm. He cut a handsome figure, and it no doubt impressed his most ardent supporters even as they recognized it as an over-the-top political stunt.

But that one also backfired when Bush appeared later on the carrier under the infamous "Mission Accomplished" banner, while the war in Iraq raged on.

In the 2000 presidential campaign, Al Gore hired feminist author Naomi Wolf to enhance his appeal to women voters, and the press had a field day at his expense when reporters learned Wolf had recommended he wear more earth tones to soften his image.

Historically, though, image-making has been an inescapable fact of political life.

Abraham Lincoln, usually the smartest person in the room, still liked to cultivate the idea that he was little more than a country lawyer and did nothing to discourage his nickname as "the rail splitter," though there is some question of whether he ever split any rails.

According to the Chicago History Museum, which has an oil painting of a log-splitting Lincoln as a young backwoodsman, his supporters decided he needed a catchy nickname when he ran for president in 1860.

As the story goes, two supporters located a split rail fence supposedly built by Lincoln 30 years earlier and carried two of the rails into the hall at an Illinois Republican convention held to endorse a favorite son candidate. The rails were decorated with flags, streamers and a sign that read "Abraham Lincoln, The Rail Candidate." The crowd loved it.

Lincoln said he could not confirm for sure that he had split those very rails, but the "rail splitter" image was born. It had, according to the museum, enormous appeal to voters (all male at that time) who shared similar working class backgrounds and a belief in the merits of hard work and self-reliance.

© Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.

Read more articles by William Endicott



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