Trail Mix: Yes, Backdrops Do Matter

It was supposed to be a week for John Kerry to show off his support for science and high-tech matters. So sure enough, the Democratic presidential candidate rolled into San Jose last Thursday, the self-styled capital of Silicon Valley, to talk about the new frontiers of broadband, biosensors and nanotechnology. The only problem was Kerry's choice of warm-up guy. An elderly icon of the old economy: Lee Iacocca.

There was nothing wrong in staging an event with Iacocca. Far from it. Iacocca is a huge scalp for the Kerry campaign, a big Republican business leader who backed the other guy in 2000. Moreover, the cigar-chomping Iacocca remains a hero in at least three battleground states--Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania--for saving Chrysler from bankruptcy a generation ago. "I was deeply involved in the Bush campaign," Iacocca sheepishly told Kerry's fans, "stumping for him in Michigan and Pennsylvania, where I spent most of my life. I hate to tell you this now: I even appeared in a couple of Bush campaign ads." The retired auto CEO said he was now backing Kerry because he liked the Democrat's plans for job creation and because the country needed new leadership.

So what was wrong? Iacocca was hardly the face of San Jose or what it represents. And unless you knew Iacocca already, you'd have no idea that Kerry had won the backing of a manufacturing legend. In short, the pictures conveyed nothing of the candidate's message about new technology.

As if to underscore how Kerry had missed a golden photo op, the senator flew the very next day to Ohio itself. His message, as usual in Ohio, was about manufacturing jobs. Yet there was no Iacocca presence and barely a mention of his name. No photos at manufacturing plants, but two events in faceless school gyms. The only significant new presence was ABC's Ted Koppel, shooting a day-in-the-life of the campaign for Nightline. Iacocca would have been a perfect piece of news for a highly-televised day of stumping through an industrial swing state.

Since at least the Reagan era, we've come to expect that presidential candidates will manipulate their own images. Bush repeatedly staged events in schools during the 2000 campaign, where his handlers would almost always manage to position an African-American or Latino student to the side of the then-Texas governor. Those images were enormously successful at building the Bush brand as "a different kind of Republican". With the notable exception of his TV ads, Kerry's ability to stage-manage his campaign stops is largely non-existent.

Yes, presidential campaigns are first and foremost about ideas, candidates and the nation's mood. But they're also about pictures, settings and image. A good picture is worth a hundred stump speeches, and a good TV ad is worth a thousand. Does that trivialize the serious work of electing a leader of the free world? Maybe. Is it part of how the real world learns its news and shapes its views? You bet.

You'd have to be a dedicated reader of small campaign news stories to know that Kerry pitched his science policies last week. Especially because there were no pictures of him visiting a laboratory, or touring a microchip plant. For some mysterious reason, Kerry kicked off his high-tech week at a mock-classical Greek theater in downtown Denver, Colorado. Kerry has enough problems looking animated without this kind of dismal, and often meaningless, backdrop.

When Kerry does stumble across some priceless staging, his campaign seems happy to keep it off the television screens. At the spectacular Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, Kerry was feted last week by stars such as Billy Crystal, Robert de Niro, Leonardo di Caprio and Ben Affleck. He was serenaded by Willie Nelson, Neil Diamond and Angie Stone. The stars read from scripts that were so moderated they could have been written in Washington--even Barbra Streisand sounded like the Democratic National Committee. "The senator himself could have delivered any of those remarks," said one senior Kerry confidante the next day.

Yet TV cameras were banned for all the stars' remarks, and were only admitted for Kerry's rehash of his stump speech. Kerry's aides said the performers only agreed to appear as long as the cameras were excluded. That ban seemed strange since there were still photos taken of the event, and the performers sounded determined to help Kerry beat Bush. Since the stars read and even sang (Streisand included) from giant plasma screens, the risk of embarrassment to Kerry seemed fairly low. So why didn't the Kerry campaign push for the stars to be filmed on TV? After all, most actors and singers reach the kind of voters that few politicians --especially one like Kerry--could ever touch.

The following day, Kerry was in midtown Manhattan being serenaded in front of a very different audience of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender supporters. Only this time it was in front of a bank of TV cameras and his warm-up acts were far less smooth. First off was Howard Dean, the one-time shoo-in for the Democratic nomination, who declared: "I am going to work my a-- off for John Kerry!" Urging his remarks to be printed in the New York Post, Dean explained: "All I can say is if the vice president of the United States is using the f-bomb on the Senate floor, I can use the a-word at an LGTB gathering."

Kerry's second warm-up was Harvey Fierstein, the larger-than-life Broadway star and playwright. Fierstein noted Kerry's late arrival (due to bad weather) by saying: "Whatever else happens tonight, I think we can trust him because he's on gay people time." Fierstein proceeded to call President Bush a "weapon of mass destruction" before singing a ditty that rhymed "Bush wines and dines" with "you've got Heinz". If you're the kind of campaign that worries about a star-studded concert in Hollywood, you might also be a little wary of a gay event in New York with the unpredictable Dean and an actor who gets typecast for being camp. Either you put all your events on TV or you put none of them (except your own remarks).

But that's one of the enduring mysteries of the Kerry campaign. How an ultra-careful candidate could be so careless with the set-pieces of his own race. How a candidate who admires the original JFK could have learned so little about the visuals of the presidency. And how a man with so many handlers and advisers cannot see his campaign as the rest of the world might.