The Photo As Politics: Hillary's Picture

I assume that very few people who make it to this blog also listen to Rush Limbaugh’s radio show, but many of you have certainly read about his comments regarding this unfortunate photo of Hillary Clinton. The picture, taken in New Hampshire by Associated Press photographer Jim Cole, was picked up by the Drudge Report and captioned, “The Toll of a Campaign.” Unfair? One of the problems with pictures is that they so readily absorb any definition people want to give them. Then Limbaugh added his t

I assume that very few people who make it to this blog also listen to Rush Limbaugh's radio show, but many of you have certainly read about his comments regarding this unfortunate photo of Hillary Clinton. The picture, taken in New Hampshire by Associated Press photographer Jim Cole, was picked up by the Drudge Report and captioned, "The Toll of a Campaign." Unfair? One of the problems with pictures is that they so readily absorb any definition people want to give them.
Then Limbaugh added his two bits. "Will the country want to actually watch a woman get older before their [sic] eyes on a daily basis?" Limbaugh asked. Yes, he said, the presidency ages everyone, but that hasn't bothered our looks-obsessed culture because only men have been president, and "men aging makes them look authoritative, accomplished, distinguished. Sadly, that's not the way for women, and they will tell you."
Was the comment outrageous? Yes, if only because it came from a lame radio talk-show host like Limbaugh, who depends on his ability to outrage to keep his name in the headlines. And here he certainly succeeded.
But here's the scary part: What if he is kind of right? Looks do matter. Which means, of course, that images matter. We have been told over and over that John F. Kennedy won the presidency because his tanned good looks compared favorably to Richard Nixon's pallor and five o'clock shadow during their televised debates in 1960. And as Maureen Dowd comments in today's New York Times, "women are still scrutinized more critically on their looks." (Meanwhile, Republic operatives have long referred to John Edwards as "The Breck Girl" because of his perfectly coiffed hair. I sense a connection in this particular strain of conservative thinking, but I'm not sure what it is. Thoughts?)
Political campaigns have long been waged with slogans and imagery—both of which can be used to construct a narrative that will appeal to voters. (See my post from yesterday.) But imagery also carries risk. Here we have a very handsome woman, caught in one bad instant, and the Limbaughs of the world have their daily ration of red meat.
--David Schonauer