“How the President Subverts the Ritual of the Presidential Photo Op”

From a Washington Post story by media writer Paul Farhi about “How the president subverts the ritual of the presidential photo op”:

For two days before President Trump’s visit on Thursday to a Ford factory in Michigan, controversy raged over whether he would — or should — wear a surgical mask while he was there.

Ford had put out the word that masks were mandatory in the Ypsilanti factory — which is making personal protective equipment — though Trump had previously made it clear that, counter to federal recommendations and Michigan law, he didn’t see masks as his kind of thing. So the Michigan attorney general put out a statement imploring the president to comply.

Would he or wouldn’t he? Trump played coy on Tuesday: “It depends, I mean, you know, certain areas I would and certain areas I don’t. . . .”

Had there ever been so much drama over the logistics of a basic photo op? . . .

Political photo ops are, by definition, artificial and self-consciously orchestrated events, designed to goose the news media into paying attention to whatever story line the White House or a campaign wants to promote.

“The people were out in droves and their spirits are high,” Ronald Reagan wrote in his diary about a 1983 trip he had made that day to flood-ravaged Louisiana. “I shoveled a few sandbags for the cameramen.”

It was a rare acknowledgment of the calculation, even cynicism, behind photo ops. Reagan had been on his way back to Washington after a visit to California when communications director Michael Deaver urged him to make a disaster-zone detour. Reagan could just as easily have helped Louisiana from the White House — but visiting the state offered the photographic proof that he cared, and that the nation should, too.

A president listening intently to a fellow world leader. A candidate laughing with school kids. Tossing a football. Serving dinner to the troops. Political photo ops happen so often and the images are so prevalent — until, of course, a national health crisis renders them scarce — that we hardly stop to think about the stagecraft that goes into them.

Three decades later, the nation has another president who, like Reagan, has roots in show business and a knack for the visual. Yet time and again, Trump has managed to step on the careful planning of his communications staff. . . .

Presidents have been exploiting the power of the visual ever since photography was invented — Matthew Brady helped Abraham Lincoln improve his image with a famously glammed-up campaign portrait in 1860. The practice soon came to encompass exotic locations and props — a championship team, a celebrity, a baby, a live turkey in the Rose Garden. Deaver turned Reagan into the embodiment of Americana by sending him in front of the news cameras to clear brush on his ranch or ride horses. He gave speeches with iconic backdrops — an overlook of Omaha Beach on the 40th anniversary of D-Day, the South Bronx to advocate for urban renewal, the Berlin Wall at the height of the Cold War. (“Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!“) Deaver even made a photo op of Reagan’s 2004 burial, timing it to the hour of the sun setting over the Pacific Ocean. . . .

Almost every appearance by the president is technically a photo op (short for “opportunity”), including Oval Office pool “sprays” — when photographers scramble to take a few shots of the president with some other worthy before being shooed away. Strictly speaking, however, photo ops are more elaborate events beyond the White House gates crafted as “visual presentations of the president doing the job and having an impact,” as Joe Lockhart, one of President Bill Clinton’s press secretaries, puts it. It’s a template often simulated by the candidates who aspire to become president.

The basic playbook isn’t hard: Associate the politician with something grand or profound or tragic or just relevant to whatever agenda he is trying to set. Placing him at the scene of a natural disaster or the factory floor is a good start, but he also has to do something — hand out supplies, hug people, walk around in a windbreaker with a concerned expression. . . .

Photo flops — or maybe “photo oops” — have bedeviled politicians since the dawn of the TV age. Think of President Nixon’s “casual birthday stroll” on the beach near his home in San Clemente, Calif., wearing black wingtips and dress pants. Or Michael Dukakis, the 1988 Democratic nominee, looking small and nebbish riding in a tank. . . .

Trump’s most grotesque photo op grew out of his visit to El Paso last year to comfort the survivors and families of a mass shooting. What should have been a layup — the president consoling the grieving — turned into a fiasco with a shocking photo: Trump grinning broadly and giving a thumbs-up sign as Melania Trump cradled a baby whose parents had been killed in the Texas shooting. . . .

The president has maintained a constant visual presence during the pandemic primarily via his daily briefings, befitting his background as a showman and his understanding of the power of images, said Adam Belmar, the deputy director of communications for production under President George W. Bush. “Presidential communication is inherently visual,” he said.

The next few months don’t seem very promising. With Trump restricted in his travel, Biden stuck in his house, rallies suspended and the political conventions in limbo, photo ops figure to be rare. Which raises a question: What does a presidential campaign even look like without them?

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