In the careful crafting of public image, Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry has worked overtime portraying himself as a macho man. There have been photographs of the senator looking lean and toned in a wet suit. He has been immortalized wearing the daredevil attire of snowboarders. He has tooled along the campaign trail in a beaten-up motorcycle jacket. He paraded before the cameras in a barn jacket and toting a shotgun. On the tarmac, he tosses footballs in a shirt and tie, suggesting that the uniform of the civilized Western man can barely contain his inner athlete. And every five seconds someone somewhere displays the image of Kerry in military gear aboard that Swift boat in Vietnam.
Even Kerry's arrival in Boston for the Democratic National Convention was scripted to recall war veteran machismo. Kerry pulled into town aboard a water taxi and surrounded by fellow veterans. He was wearing a statesman's suit rather than fatigues, but he inevitably offered photographers the money shot: He stood pointing off into the distance like a dutiful first mate helping the skipper navigate the treacherous waters of Boston Harbor. Bunting, of course, flapped around in the breeze.
With such care given to image management, it is all the more jolting that Kerry could make such a terrible miscalculation during his recent visit aboard the orbiter Discovery at Cape Canaveral. He donned a pale blue jumpsuit and hood to enter the craft, which was being prepared for a space shuttle mission. The ensemble, which looked like a cross between surgical scrubs and a bunny suit, is worn in laboratories to maintain a clean environment. Such suits are standard in Hollywood films in which the hero visits the lab of the mild-mannered scientist whose research will ultimately save the world. But note that it is the lab rat who wears the suit, not the hero. He stands strong and resolute, throwing off clouds of testosterone while absorbing dire warnings.
In this age of image, the very mention of the lab suit should have set off flashing red lights and screaming sirens. No costumes! Do not let the candidate look like the boy in the bubble! Do not allow voters to make a visual connection between the candidate and Woody Allen dressed as sperm!
The suit did not humanize Kerry. It did not make him look tough. Maybe if Kerry had had a surgical mask hanging around his neck, the suit would have given him the heroic glow of a surgeon emerging from the operating theater to announce that the patient will survive. Instead, the image left one wondering whether the suit had a back flap and attached feet.
The photographs of Kerry dressed in his sky blue onesie were quickly compared to the image of former Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis when he climbed into a tank. With a too-big helmet perched atop his head, Dukakis called to mind the awkward ineptitude of an underage driver who can barely see over the steering wheel. But the Kerry-Dukakis costuming comparison is not quite fair. Although the tank scene ultimately turned out to be ill-advised, reasonable minds could understand the logic behind it: Put the candidate who has problems communicating his toughness inside a military vehicle. Accessorize with a helmet. Associate him with combat, aggressiveness, bravery.
Part of what made the Dukakis image so disastrous was that it was so reasonable. Here was the perfect Hollywood set piece and the star muffed it.
Being generous, one might argue that Kerry's intellectual curiosity caused him to ignore how ridiculous he would look in the clean gear. The chance to crawl around in a spaceship was too tempting. Most folks would find that hard to pass up. But he is not most people -- he wants to be president. As a general rule, anyone aspiring to be the commander in chief should always try to avoid looking like a Teletubby.
Political consultants warn that it is essential for a candidate to look presidential from the outset of a campaign. Everything about him must speak of gravitas, strength, wisdom and authority. Words provide context and details. Image is shorthand. Audiences listen to the candidate's message but they also inspect his body language, his family dynamics, his tailoring, his smile, his smirk, his hair. Image is not a substitute for substance but it can underscore what a man is made of or detract from it. A man with a firm handshake, good posture and regal bearing has an edge. A man in uniform or a beautifully cut suit has an edge. A candidate in a costume will always look absurd.