This is not an unimportant skill. The ability to use images to generate mass popularity is among a politician's most important tasks in an electoral democracy. Ever since the great debates between Kennedy and Nixon in 1969, images have supplanted words as the primary way of knowing something about our leaders. Where an hour-long speech was accepted as normal on the stump in the 19th century, today's presidential candidates will deliver an average stump speech in less than 17 minutes. Presidential campaign ads have dropped in length from 30 minutes in 1952 to 30 seconds in 1988. Often, voters are left to judge a politician's worth based as much on image as on the thoughtful exploration of important issues. Or, as Reagan and Bush speechwriter Peggy Noonan opined, "The young people who do speeches for major politicians don't write a serious text with serious arguments, they just write sound bite after sound bite."
From this perspective, it hardly matters that Edwards' track record has only the most dubious relevance to the war on terror. He has charisma. He has demonstrated an ability to ground himself in pop culture. In a democracy, those qualities precede even the issues themselves. That is why his unveiling was not punctuated by serious talk about Iraq. It was about bombarding the public with atmosphere and blow-dried hair. On the eve of an election about issues no less important than war and peace, the Democrats are offering a VP who has dedicated himself to using images to solicit knee-jerk responses from the American public.
Contrast this for a moment with Dick Cheney, a man who has had a lifetime in government. He doesn't need to use images to suggest greatness. It is plainly understood that if Bush died or became incapacitated, Cheney could discharge the presidency with skill and composure. (The Democrats admitted as much when, early on, they attempted to smear Bush by suggesting that Cheney was running the whole show.)
That should provide a sobering comparison for anyone who believes that the election of our politicians should have at least some relevance to the policies they'll be called upon to enact as our leaders.
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