That grainy black-and white surveillance footage of Rep. Vance McAllister (R-La.) smooching a staffer is more than a collection of pixels that launched a political scandal — it’s the latest addition to the National Gallery of Politicians’ Shame.
The Gallery is an ever-expanding visual catalog of lawmakers behaving badly, pictures shared on Facebook pages and blogs, or perhaps turned into memes, offering photographic evidence of scandal that transforms politicians’ misdeeds from the abstract to the corporeal.
“In a visual culture, the image is almost everything,” says Scott Talan, an assistant professor in American University’s school of communication. “You almost don’t need anything else.”
The Gallery’s early works include a beaming Sen. Gary Hart (D-Colo.) with Donna Rice perched on his lap, wearing a shirt bearing the name of the yacht, “Monkey Business.” Recent years have seen an influx of the selfie genre: Former Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.) in his undies. Weiner shirtless. Weiner with cats. Former Rep. Chris Lee (R-N.Y.), also bare-chested, flexing in the mirror in a photo he emailed in response to a personal ad on craigslist.com.
McAllister’s contribution to the Gallery isn’t flesh-exposing, but it is action-packed, showing the married congressman engaged in a passionate lip-lock with a woman who’s been identified as his (also married) staffer. (McAllister has apologized, vowing “to do everything I can to earn back the trust of everyone I’ve disappointed.”)
Brandon Rottinghaus, a University of Houston professor who has studied political scandal, says that flaps involving a photo — and in McAllister’s case, a video — often have more of an impact than those left to the imagination. There’s a “stark contrast,” he notes, between the buttoned-up image political figures project and the seamy doings depicted in their scandalous snaps.And then there’s the old maxim: seeing is believing.
“It’s the way we are hard-wired to process political information,” he says. “People can believe something that they can Google-image search for on their phones.”