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.
It helps sell the bottom line, which is war with Iraq made the world safer. It did so by toppling a tyrant who is evil; a man dedicated to manufacturing biological and chemical weapons and who was desperately trying to build a nuclear bomb; a man who has used weapons of mass destruction on his neighbor and against his own citizens. (Is there any doubt he would direct them at us, if given the chance?); a man whose government funnels money to the families of Palestinian suicide bombers; a man who nourishes hate and fanaticism in hopes that terrorism of the Sept. 11 variety will continue to replicate throughout the world. By toppling Saddam, we made the world safer and took the first crucial steps in engineering a new era of peace in the Middle East.
But American voters require something more. It is not enough to show that Saddam was a tyrant. The world is full of evil men. The administration desperately needs that image of uncovered weapons of mass destruction. Foreign affairs, which lack the immediacy of domestic issues, derive their legitimacy from the threat of clear and present danger. The administration understands this. That is why they sold the war with Iraq as a war to halt Saddam's weapons program. Without visual evidence to make this argument seem real, the administration will have difficulty making the case for strong action in North Korea or Iran. Every new foreign affairs agenda will be undercut by the failure to achieve visual closure in Iraq.
And that is a shame because we need to prevent North Korea from developing a cache of nuclear weapons and destabilizing the entire Asian continent. We need to liberate the citizens of Iran if we are to have any hope of achieving peace in the Middle East.
Sadly, American politics was long ago trivialized by television images. Should the administration fail to come up with the crucial image of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, their foreign affairs agenda will recede in significance, and the nation will become suddenly susceptible to the next demagogue who immerses himself in domestic issues and popular culture.
Just like in 1992.