The long and winding road of the presidential campaign season is littered with photo ops as every candidate seeks to enhance her or his “image.” If this deceptive practice gets under your skin, you can thank a man named Edward Bernays—the father of American public relations—and his early work with President Calvin Coolidge.
Coolidge became the 30th American president when Warren G. Harding died in 1923 and was elected in his own right one year later. An effective public speaker, Coolidge was economical with his words in private and soon earned the nickname “Silent Cal.”
“The words of a President have an enormous weight,” Coolidge said, “and ought not to be used indiscriminately.” Bernays saw things a little differently. To him, Silent Cal was “practically inarticulate, and no movement of any kind agitated his deadpan face.” When asked to help liven up the president’s image and demonstrate his “warm, sympathetic personality,” Bernays hit upon the concept of a “photo op.” He invited Vaudeville stars to the White House because “stage people symbolize warmth, extroversion, and Bohemian camaraderie.” Al Jolson, Ed Wynn, The Dolly Sisters, and others arrived for a pancake breakfast—and there were plenty of cameras present. The next day’s newspaper headlines included: “Actor Eats Cake with the Coolidges,” “Guests Crack Dignified Jokes, Sing Song and Pledge To Support Coolidge,” and “President Nearly Laughs.”
Fast-forward to 2002 when President Bush spoke near Mount Rushmore. As reported by the New York Times, “the White House positioned the best platform for television crews off to one side, not head on as other White Houses have done, so that the cameras caught Mr. Bush in profile, his face perfectly aligned with the four presidents carved in stone.”
“We pay particular attention to not only what the president says but what the American people see,” White House communications director Dan Bartlett explained. “Americans are leading busy lives, and sometimes they don’t have the opportunity to read a story or listen to an entire broadcast. But if they can have an instant understanding of what the president is talking about by seeing 60 seconds of television, you accomplish your goals as communicators.”
As Dubya eloquently explained, “See, in my line of work you got to keep repeating things over and over and over again for the truth to sink in, to kind of catapult the propaganda.”
As they say, deception is reality.