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Election 2016: Image World (3)

A. D. Coleman selfie 1-17-16_smThey’re Baaack!

I tried, I swear. But I couldn’t bring myself to watch the early Republic Party debates — certainly not the ones involving the kiddie table, nor those gathering the supposed adults. Each time I viewed clips or read excerpts the morning after, my own inner adult shuddered and whimpered — “Please, don’t make me do this. At least wait till they’ve culled the herd.”

So, since no crucial visual issues related to the campaign required attention, I decided to wait till the start of the year. Now let the wild rumpus begin … with a bit of catching up.

Fred Hiatt Disgraces Himself (and the WaPo)

Ted Cruz campaign ad, "Cruz Christmas Classics," December 2015, screenshot

Ted Cruz campaign ad, “Cruz Christmas Classics,” December 2015, screenshot

The late-December 2015 tempest in a teapot over the depiction by Washington Post political cartoonist Ann Telnaes of Ted Cruz and his daughters (and the Post‘s decision to censor that cartoon after protests) almost pulled me in. I had end-of-the-year posts scheduled, so I put my response on hold. It’s old news already, but it certainly involves visual imagery, so it deserves a footnote here.

From John F. Kennedy on, politicians have exploited their children shamelessly as presences in the political sphere (see my 1999 commentary on this phenomenon, “14 Years On: R.I.P., J.F.K., Jr.”) But, by general agreement, the media have refrained from commentary on said kids, save for those occasions on which they evoked it via public behavior (e.g., the drunken antics of Dubya’s daughters).

Ted Cruz campaign ad, "Cruz Christmas Classics," December 2015, screenshot

Ted Cruz campaign ad, “Cruz Christmas Classics,” December 2015, screenshot

So long as a politician’s spouse and scions serve in their traditional, strictly decorative and symbolic roles — as close-mouthed proof of virility or fecundity and evidence that the politico subscribes to some version of the concept of family — I agree with the rule that puts them off-limits. I’ll even tolerate a bit of literal flag-waving from the wee ones at campaign events, on the grounds that, though it bespeaks little more than parental brainwashing, it goes with the territory.

Ted Cruz campaign ad, "Cruz Christmas Classics," December 2015, screenshot

Ted Cruz campaign ad, “Cruz Christmas Classics,” December 2015, screenshot

However, Cruz’s use of his daughters not just as decorative and symbolic props but as active performers in “Cruz Christmas Classics,” a satiric campaign ad released on December 19 (when it premiered during Saturday Night Live), went well beyond that. By doing so, it evoked a response from the Pulitzer Prize winner Telnaes in which she depicted Cruz as a Santa-garbed organ grinder and his daughters as elf-clothed performing monkeys. Those who objected claimed that Telnaes had crossed the line with the depiction. But, as they say in courtroom dramas, Cruz had opened the door for that line of questioning when his scriptwriters had his youngster mouth a sarcastic comment about Hillary Clinton.

Ted Cruz campaign ad, "Cruz Christmas Classics," December 2015, screenshot

Ted Cruz campaign ad, “Cruz Christmas Classics,” December 2015, screenshot

The Cruz girls — Catherine, 4, and Caroline, 7cannot qualify by any standard as sufficiently informed and sophisticated to understand the significance of making a caustic public comment about a presidential candidate for global distribution via the mass media. Yet Cruz and his wife Heidi deliberately involved their daughters in this ad not just as passive presences, useful for their cuteness quotient, but as proponents of his political views. I call that pimping. Should we consider that parentally appropriate, or not? In either case, how can anyone decry Telnaes’s comment as gratuitous, or view Cruz’s indignation as anything but hypocritical?

One of the lessons effective parents try to teach their kids: Actions have consequences. In this case, little girls, here’s the takeaway from your teachable moment:

You don’t get to go on national television and further your father’s and mother’s political ambitions by sniping at an accomplished adult, old enough to be your grandmother and fully qualified to run for national office, without coming in for some criticism yourself. You don’t get to play politics one day and hide behind apron strings the next. That’s how the real world works; if you can’t handle it, tell mommy and daddy to keep you out of their promotional ads.

Ted Cruz campaign ad, "Cruz Christmas Classics," December 2015, screenshot

Ted Cruz campaign ad, “Cruz Christmas Classics,” December 2015, screenshot

And parents don’t get to use their children for political gain, as actors on the political stage, and then object to any unfavorable response to the message they’ve had their children send or to the performance that sends it. Ted Cruz’s hypocrisy in this matter typifies him; I’d expect nothing else.

But I find truly appalling the decision by Fred Hiatt, the Post‘s editorial-page editor, to pull the cartoon, claiming that he “failed to look at this cartoon before it was published” (and, implicitly, that he would not have run it had he seen it). A clear message to Telnaes that her weasel of an editor doesn’t have her back, instead of a message to Cruz and others that having your kids mouth ideas whose true import they can’t possibly grasp makes them fair game. Shame on Hiatt for such cowardly kowtowing.

Ducking for Cover

Rand Paul shredding the tax code, 7-22-15, screenshot

Rand Paul shredding the tax code, 7-22-15, screenshot

I have to say that, to date in this campaign, the wingnuts have far outstripped their liberal-left counterparts when it comes to generating memorable imagery. Most of that happened last summer and fall, when Rand Paul took a chainsaw to the tax code, Lindsey Graham puréed his cellphone, Donald Trump had the Univision anchor ejected from his press conference, Rick Perry released a country-rap campaign theme song, Mike Huckabee compared the pending nuclear deal with Iran to the Holocaust, and Ben Carson played the old board game Operation.

But all of those paled beside Ted Cruz auditioning for The Simpsons and cooking bacon with a machine gun. Add to that the almost certainly calculated uproar over his Xmas family video and I’d have to say that, hands down, the majority of 2015’s potent visual imagery from the presidential campaigns came from Team Cruz.

Ted Cruz meets Duck Dynasty, 1-13-16, screenshot

Ted Cruz meets Duck Dynasty, 1-13-16, screenshot

And it did so by design. I may despise the man and everything for which he stands, but — in terms of appeal to the audience he’s targeted — this represents very smart image-based propaganda. That’s even more true for the January 13 ad in which Cruz gets the endorsement of Duck Dynasty commander Phil Robertson, and goes hunting with him. What this tells us about the condition of U.S. politics should scare the camo pants off anyone, but as entertainment for the hoi polloi it works better than Jimmy Fallon putting Hillary Clinton through a mock job interview for the position of POTUS. Whether Cruz thinks this stuff up on his own or his team cooks it up for him, this shows media savvy at work.

Here Goes Nothing

Donald Trump, 2015, screenshot

Donald Trump, 2015, screenshot

So that’s where we start in 2016. To date, neither the televised debates nor the public campaign appearances of the candidates themselves have generated significant imagery.* I’ve nothing useful to add to the already much-discussed weirdness of Donald Trump’s hand gestures, facial expressions, and hairstyle. My readers don’t need me to point out the overwhelmingly angry-white-folks composition of the crowds who attend the rallies for the wingnut lineup, or the rainbow-coalition demographic of those who come out to listen to and support Clinton and Sanders.

The main visual difference between the Republican and Democratic debates, so far, resides in the sense of visual clutter onstage at the Republican events. I say this just as a watcher who has no use for any of them and thus no investment in sorting out the distinctions without differences in their positions. There are just too many of them to track and distinguish from each other; inexorably, they all merge into one angry, judgmental, back-biting, finger-pointing scold. We need Nancy Burson to superimpose their faces on each other according to some poll-based algorithm: the physiognomy of Tea Party-driven Republicanism 2016.

5th Republican debate, Las Vegas, 12-15-15, CNN screenshot

5th Republican debate, Las Vegas, 12-15-15, CNN screenshot

Try this: Mute the sound during any segment of any Republic Party debate so you can concentrate on their faces and body language. Ask yourself which of them you would want to watch as they address you in the role of POTUS for four to eight years. Then try the same with Hillary and Bernie.

It’s when you turn the sound back on that the differences in content and tone make themselves clear. Whatever you think of them, their political positions, and their ideas, Clinton and Sanders — and Martin O’Malley too, though on January 17 he came across as the youngster finally allowed to sit with the grownups — sound (to me) like sensible adults speaking to each other and the moderators and the public as other sensible adults. The Tea Party clones sound like petulant, bickering demagogues haranguing overgrown children, and look like sharks in the dark with blood in the water.

New York Daily News, "Drop Dead, Ted," front page, January 15, 2016(* I have to qualify the above statement that no powerful imagery has come out of the debates. After I’d written it, Rupert Murdoch’s Mortimer Zuckerman’s Daily News published an over-the-top front page with the headline “Drop Dead, Ted” superimposed on a photocollage depicting the Statue of Liberty giving Cruz the finger. This in response to a snide passing comment by Cruz at the January 14 debate about Trump’s “New York values.” Since the Cruz constituency loathes everything that New York City represents to them, this works in Cruz’s favor, even though he probably didn’t plan it to happen exactly that way. — A. D. C.)

Asleep at the Wheel

I would except Ben Carson from that generalization above about the overt malevolence radiating from the Republic Party contenders, vying for what Trump calls the “mantle of anger” with a determination worthy of Black Friday shoppers. Carson, by contrast, looks so dependably unflappable that he has either achieved Buddha consciousness or self-doses on Prozac.

Ben Carson, ABC News, September 2011, screenshot

Ben Carson, ABC News, September 2011, screenshot

He actually made it to my neck of the woods recently: see Jen Kirby’s report for New York magazine, “Ben Carson Comes to Staten Island, Thinks It’s a ‘Pretty Cool Place.'” Talk about diplomatic (not to mention generic) — hard to go wrong describing just about any community as “a pretty cool place,” and it definitely improves on “nice.” (In case you wondered, no, I didn’t go to see him.)

As a person of the melanin-deficient persuasion I probably venture into the territory of political incorrectness in saying this, but … the black candidates put forward as presidential timber by the Republic Party this election cycle and last have both seemed to me dumb as posts. That they have worldly accomplishments — Herman Cain as a businessman, Carson as a pediatric neurosurgeon — appears to satisfy their supporters as sufficient in the credentials department, despite the gibberish that comes out of their mouths when they opine on any other subject, and regardless of their patent cluelessness regarding current affairs, recent and ancient history, international relations, and just about everything else.

Herman Cain ponders Libya, 11-14-11, screenshot

Herman Cain ponders Libya, 11-14-11, screenshot

But parading a pathetic ignoramus around as a trophy ill serves the cause of interracial respect. In these consistently benighted performances, which mix superstition with gullibility, we enter into Amos ‘n’ Andy rerun territory, with the joke on anyone who takes Cain or Carson seriously. If the wingnuts have embraced these two for their ideas, I still have no idea what those could be; I have heard nothing resembling an idea from either of them, just garbled cant. If they’ve clutched these two to their bosoms due to vague shared “values,” and for the presumed usefulness of their melanin in attracting minorities, that tokenism appears to have backfired, or at least fizzled; people of color continue to vote overwhelmingly for the other team.

"How to Beat Operation with Dr. Ben Carson" video, 2015, screenshot

“How to Beat Operation with Dr. Ben Carson” video, 2015, screenshot

It does have one undeniable effect: embarrassment. Putting politics aside, race as well, speaking simply on a human level, I find it distressing to watch these ill-prepared and ill-advised men demonstrate their profound ignorance of history, culture, politics, and world affairs on network television. They evidence none of the acuity, the articulacy, or the knowledgeability of such national figures as Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Shirley Chisholm, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Barack Obama, or many others. The image they present exactly opposes that of those predecessors, with their intellectual curiosity and wide-ranging intelligence; they come across as hapless, witless buffoons, projecting the cluelessness of the idiot savant regarding everything but their specialty.

Were I black, I’d find this mortifying. For a sample of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s several critiques of both Cain and Carson, see his April 3, 2013 New York Times op-ed, “He Wears the Mask.” I try in vain to imagine a discussion between Coates and Ben Carson, or Herman Cain, or any of the others trotted out by the Republic Party as evidence of their “diversity.” So I’d like to hear Coates’s take on the specific issue of discomfort (or comfort) with Cain and Carson as representatives of black thought — which differs from disagreement with their political ideas, such as they are.

Pogo for President

ADC_w_Songs_of_the_Pogo_12-24-15

ADC with “Songs of the Pogo” songbook, 12-24-15

Whenever this gets to be too much for me, as it often does, I cheer myself up by singing along with the inimitable Walt Kelly’s own rendering of the theme song he wrote for the earliest of the Georgia possum’s unwilling presidential campaigns. “Go Go Pogo,” delivered in an endearing growl by that great cartoonist himself, appears as the first song on the 1956 LP Songs of the Pogo, which you can hear in its entirety here.

When this campaign gets worse — as I promise you it will; be very afraid — I recommend as antidote the animated 1980 movie I Go Pogo, available in its entirety on YouTube. Vincent Price, Stan Freberg, Arnold Stang, Bob McFadden … you can’t go wrong. As a bonus, that Duck Dynasty crew fits right in; you can imagine exactly how Kelly would have drawn them.

(For an index of links to all posts in this series, click here.)

This post supported by a donation from photographer Harry Wilks.

A. D. Coleman, Critical Focus, 1995Special offer: If you want me to either continue pursuing a particular subject or give you a break and (for one post) write on a topic — my choice — other than the current main story, make a donation of $50 via the PayPal widget below, indicating your preference in a note accompanying your donation. I’ll credit you as that new post’s sponsor, and link to a website of your choosing. Include  a note with your snail-mail address (or email it to me separately) for a free signed copy of my 1995 book Critical Focus!

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