Sooner or Later, Candidates Will Surely Look Lost

(By Jim Cole -- Associated Press)
  Enlarge Photo    
By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 26, 2007

They have become a useful, though very tricky, class of images in this roller-coaster ride of a presidential campaign. Call them the "hangdog" candidate photographs: They capture the politician with eyes downcast, looking tired, stressed. When the headline is about poll numbers dropping, fundraising tanking or verbal gaffes from soon-to-be-cashiered campaign advisers, the hangdog candidate image is sure to make its appearance.

No matter that the candidate is saying he or she isn't concerned about the bad news. No matter that they're still smiling, they still feel confident, they can still point to positive poll numbers in this state or that. The grim-faced photograph confirms the suggestion, in the story it illustrates, that the campaign is imploding.

Given how many ups and downs there have been in the race so far, most candidates have been subject, at one point or another, to seeing themselves look like losers. The popular Drudge Report Web site recently ran a particularly notorious picture of Hillary Clinton, showing her face riven with deep furrows and wrinkles. She looked so awful that even some conservative commentators noted the unfairness of using such a manifestly unflattering image.

But the hangdog photograph isn't just unflattering. It is distinct from photographs that show the candidate looking out of the corner of his or her eyes, in a way that suggests shiftiness. It is distinct from the image of the candidate bored senseless, chin on hand, eyes unfocused. It is distinct from photographs that underscore some perceived character flaw -- vanity, laziness, lack of discipline -- through some iconic gesture or pose (hair combing, slouching, sloppiness). The hangdog image conveys a single, tight visual message: fatigue, sadness, impotence.

When the news is about your son actually hanging a dog -- one of the stranger moments of Mike Huckabee's campaign, which struggled with the rehash of an old story about the Arkansas governor's number one son killing a dog when he was a camp counselor in 1998 -- there isn't necessarily any need for the standard hangdog image. Because when you're riding an updraft of polling numbers, minor details like your son's torturing and killing of man's best friend don't lead to images of fatigue, sadness and impotence. A little sweat on the brow, perhaps.

Watching this year's extraordinarily competitive campaign reminds one again how much the process of choosing a president parallels the process whereby the ancient Romans received new emperors. One major qualification for the job is how well the candidate stands up to the long and public bloodbath that narrows the field. Weakness is fatal. You may end up with a perfect tyrant running the joint, but at least you can be certain he's a survivor. Emperors and presidents should not be subject to fatigue, sadness or impotence.

The hangdog candidate photograph is a weapon in the war of attrition. They are easily gathered, because no politician can be completely upbeat every day of every week for two years of solid campaigning. All it takes is one tired moment, one puffy-eyed, early-morning, haven't-had-the-coffee-yet photograph, and the image is in the arsenal. Even better is if the candidate lets down his or her guard momentarily in the presence of another candidate, so that, say, Barack Obama can be seen looking happy and confident as Hillary Clinton looks tired and depressed in the same frame.

In the partisan media (much of the blogosphere, the tabloids and several cable channels), these images are used freely and gleefully. In media that strive for objectivity, the hangdog shot raises difficult issues. In an earlier age of newspapering, sorting through the archives for an image that confirmed your headline was acceptable practice. Today, serious newspapers try to use images from the most recent campaign events rather than something a few months old, even if it fits the story line better. But it's difficult to make a solid rule of relying on the most recent images, especially if the recent images are wildly dissonant with that story line. "Candidate's Mother Dies" obviously can't be illustrated with a beaming picture of the politician taken just before he or she got the bad news, not without sending an unintended message about his or her character.

The hangdog image -- and its opposite, the smiling, confident, top-dog image -- also suggests a seamlessness between the news of the campaign trail and the candidate's emotional state. In many ways, it reduces politicians to cartoons who seem to be dancing mindlessly to the tune of the polls, now frowning and moping, now giddy and upbeat. It also suggests that the media play an intimate role in this dance, piping the tune. In fact, the one thing the media almost never gain access to is the real emotional life of politicians, and when newspapers or magazines or television suggest otherwise, they run the risk of seeming self-aggrandizing.

And yet, the hangdog image is almost irresistible. All the hard-edged questioning in the world, all the grilling at news conferences and televised debates may fail to knock the candidate off message. But a single image of a sad, powerless, depressed politician is enough to break through the kabuki makeup and get at the Shakespearean psychic meltdown that is supposedly just underneath the surface. Which, through the miracle of the short attention span, disappears just as soon as the poll numbers go up again.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company