It is a fact of modern politics that politicians must rely on image to carry the day. It's been that way since the first televised debates between Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy in 1960. Watching the "great debates," political observer Daniel J. Boorstin complained that television was reducing complex political discussion to one-dimensional visual storytelling. ".The television watching viewer was left to judge, not on issues explored by thoughtful men, but on the relative capacity of the two candidates to perform under television stress," he opined.
The vast increase in media outlets since then has only further trivialized the political process. Today, most voters grow up learning from television images, rather than words. The successful politician, therefore, must be more adept than ever at using images to solicit knee-jerk reactions from voters.
The arc of George W. Bush's presidency has proved no different. It began with thick plumes of smoke engulfing the Twin Towers. Then there was an image of the most powerful man in the world, dressed in plain clothes, standing amid the rubble and shouting into a megaphone. The image proclaimed simultaneously that he was one of us (necessary in a democracy) and that he had a sense of masculine defiance (necessary for a leader). Bush's presidency began there. Images of Gen. Colin Powell holding up a baggie of white powder followed. The war with Iraq came and went. Footage of Iraqis toppling statues was plastered all over CNN. Cut to our president striding victoriously across an aircraft carrier outfitted in full U.S. Air Force regalia.
With images like that, who needs words? Certainly not the president who has been careful over the past year not to usurp his own presidency by speaking too much. The poll numbers bear out this decision.
So what now?
Bush Sr. found himself in a similar predicament in 1990. The grainy black-and-white image of scud missiles held our attention. Once Desert Storm footage ceased, Bush had no new images to suggest his greatness. His presidency promptly fell into a black hole.
Unlike his father, George W. has prepared a whole storehouse of rousing images. Up next is North Korea (cue images of nuclear reactors), then Iran (cue images of repressed citizens). Meanwhile, the administration disseminates an endless loop of American forces uncovering vast, unmarked graves where hundreds of Iraqi corpses are stacked atop one another. That's good.