As one of Richard Nixon’s chief political strategists, I was pacing the floor late one night in 1971, trying to figure how to win labor support in the coming elections. All of our well-crafted position papers hadn’t made a dent. My assistant threw his hands in the air. “Look,” he said. “People don’t read policy statements! Don’t give them a speech, show them a symbol!”
I was dubious, but he was right. Within days we invited a group of construction workers to the White House; they lined up, sun-creased faces beaming under their white hard hats as they stood in a semicircle around the President. The picture made the TV networks, Time, Newsweek, and the Washington Post—and it galvanized labor support. Working folk liked the idea of hard hats in the Oval Office.
Symbols are strong things, and nations have long rallied, both for good and ill, under their power. In the years since that 1972 election, we have seen images increasingly take center stage—with the troubling result that sound bites and photo ops too often replace political discourse and debate.
The 1988 presidential election surely showed us that. It seemed every time we turned on the television there was George Bush standing in front of the biggest American flag he could find. And who can forget Michael Dukakis’s efforts to show his concern for defense? Driving a tank and wearing a large army helmet, he looked like an oversized attack rodent.
One image from the ’88 elections was far more diabolical than silly, however, and it continues to haunt us. It’s the specter of Willie Horton, the furloughed murderer whose dark story evoked a powerful response in American voters. And politicians today—on both sides—continue to Hortonize the electoral process.
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