In the careful calculus of political party calendar making, the New York presidential primary, set for April 19, wasn’t supposed to matter all that much. And yet, with Bernie Sanders and Ted Cruz shellacking Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, respectively, in Wisconsin’s primary, both Clinton and Trump now find themselves in the crosshairs of the Manhattan media maelstrom.
So when Secretary Clinton and Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz, Jr. ventured into the 161st Street Station on Thursday to take the New York City subway’s 4 train two stops to the 170th Street Station, and the Secretary’s MetroCard logged four unsuccessful swipes before allowing the expectant commuter through the turnstile, the Democratic frontrunner became the proverbial fowl in those crosshairs.
For a 24-hour news cycle, so far, the assembled world press has enjoyed a turkey shoot:
- “Clinton struggles to get through subway entrance,” ran the POLITICO headline.
- “Hillary has to take five swipes with MetroCard to ride subway,” intoned the New York Post.
- Even the New York Times couldn’t resist chipping in a snarky headline: “Hillary Clinton’s MetroCard Adventure: Swipe. Wince. Repeat.”
With only five birds left to shoot at in the 2016 presidential nominating season, and a large flock of credentialed journalistic hunters descending on New York equipped with their preferred weapon – any device with a lens and a microphone – it was only a matter of time before Gotham served up its first big trophy. The question, however, is whether the episode will be preserved among the political taxidermy of the top memorable moments of campaign stagecraft turned sour?
In my new book, OFF SCRIPT: An Advance Man’s Guide to White House Stagecraft, Campaign Spectacle, and Political Suicide, I point to September 13, 1988 as the dawn of the Age of Optics, when the Democratic nominee, Mike Dukakis of Massachusetts, rode in an M1A1 tank at a General Dynamics (GD) proving ground in Sterling Heights, Michigan. This event not only provided a week’s worth of chuckling news coverage, including from the Times, but spawned, five weeks later, one of the most effective negative political ads of all time, giving the tank ride a second life that stretched through to election day.
Every campaign since 1988 has included many similar cringe worthy moments, including when President George H.W. Bush traveled to Orlando, Florida in February 1992 after his State of the Union Address to make a speech at the annual convention of the National Grocers Association.
Part of the ritual of this type of visit, orchestrated by advance teams who arrive on the ground several days ahead of the candidate, is to provide a companion “visual” to go along with the substance of what the president says at the podium. President Bush’s visit to Orlando didn’t carry the level of political forethought of the Dukakis foray. According to the memoir of Bush’s press secretary, Marlon Fitzwater, the president was vectoring toward a photo op with a life-sized mannequin of Daisy the Cow when the advance team thought better of it and steered him instead toward a supermarket scanner.
That’s when the trouble started.
In contrast to Secretary Clinton’s two-stop trip on the 4 train, in which everyone on the subway platform wielding a smartphone became a de facto member of her press corps, only a small White House press pool accompanied President Bush to the NCR (NCR) scanner exhibit. One print pool reporter, Gregg McDonald of the Houston Chronicle, scribbled down observations of the goings-on for the benefit of his colleagues remaining behind in the White House filing center at the Orange County Convention and Civic Center.
Among McDonald’s notes was that Bush had a “look of wonder” on his face as he politely played his part as an ‘interested observer’ who just happened to stop by at NCR’s mocked-up grocery store display.
A day later, that “look of wonder” in the pool report, seemingly corroborated by pool video shot by a network cameraman, had been transformed into a front page New York Times story carrying the headline: “Bush Encounters the Supermarket, Amazed.”
Bush and Fitzwater were furious with the impression that the front page headline and still photo left with readers of the nation’s leading newspaper. A private memo from the president to his press secretary sparked a marginally successful weeklong campaign to refute the article’s snarky premise. While the effort ended with the White House receiving a letter from Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, then the chairman and CEO of the Times, apologizing for the tone of the article being “just a teeny-weeny bit naughty” (according to Fitzwater’s memoir), the image of a president being out of touch with the people he governed has stuck with Bush – in the view of many, unfairly – for the rest of his life.
In my book, I argue that the 2004 campaign, bookended by George W. Bush’s “Mission Accomplished” visit to the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln on May 1, 2003 and the Bush campaign’s “Windsurfer” ad, which debuted on September 22, 2004 – with the “Dean Scream” sandwiched in between on January 19, 2004 – marked the high water mark of the Age of Optics, with the influence of negative imagery in slow decline ever since. That campaign was the last in which there was no YouTube, Twitter (TWTR) or Facebook (FB) to instantly disseminate visual catnip to feed a day’s news cycle.
In those days, and in preceding campaigns, a single unflattering visual had much longer legs. If some version of the shot showed up on the front page of the handful of national newspapers, it might appear again in color within the pages of three weekly newsmagazines. It could drive political chatter from the morning commute, to the office water cooler, to the family dinner around three nightly newscasts, to the late night TV monologues, and then onto Saturday Night Live and the Sunday morning shows.
All of these rest stops on the political information superhighway still exist, of course, but that road is more cluttered with wreckage of campaign imagery gone awry every day of the week. From a visual standpoint, the campaign of 2016 looks like Interstate 85 on the season 2 premiere of The Walking Dead. Each accident of political stagecraft is chronicled at every conceivable angle by local, national, global and online news outlets that appear on a Twitter feed almost simultaneously. And then, a day later, it’s replaced by something else.
Next week, in advance of the April 26 Pennsylvania primary, the Great Test of Political Worthiness will switch from subway rides to the dexterity with which Donald Trump and Ted Cruz can swallow a Philly cheesesteak, and the critical qualifier of whether the advance team has ordered it up properly smothered with Cheez Whiz rather than Provolone or, worse, the verboten Swiss.
Somewhere, surely, there’s an advance man or woman in the Empire State wincing that they didn’t properly coach Secretary Clinton in the proper je ne sais quoi with which to swipe a MetroCard. As we were always reminded at advance school, you’re only as good as your last event. But unless a few seconds of delay at the subway turnstile can be construed next fall into something as resonant as 1988’s “Tank ad” or 2004’s “Windsurfer,” the snafu at the 161st Street station snafu likely won’t last long past next Tuesday.
Josh King, author of the forthcoming OFF SCRIPT: An Advance Man’s Guide to White House Stagecraft, Campaign Spectacle, and Political Suicide, was the host of “POLITOPTICS: The Theater of Politics,” on SiriusXM’s POTUS Channel from 2011 to 2014 and the director of production for presidential events in the Clinton White House from 1993 to 1997. Follow Josh King on Twitter @Polioptics.