Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Swift Turbans for Truth

Well, the more things change, the more they stay the same. Even as new polls show Obama taking a pretty good lead nationwide (presumably as Democrats unite around their soon-to-be nominee) another tempest-in-a-teapot-here-today-gone-tomorrow controvery kicks up. This time, it's over a photo published on the Drudge website showing Obama wearing a turban. The photo was apparently taken on a trip to Kenya and it's also apparently common practice for visiting senators to try on the traditional clothing of the countries they visit. The Obama campaign claims (probably correctly) that this is an effort to stoke the fires that Obama is a foreign born radical Muslim (and probably a terrorist too) that flame up from time to time. He took the offensive immediately and shot back at the underhanded tactics that would lead to that photo being released.

Let's set aside for a moment the fact that it's custom for our senators - our duly elected representatives - to go to other countries and play dress up. I'm more interested in looking at the wisdom of the response from the Obama campaign.

Now, we're told over and over again that if we learned nothing else from the Kerry debacle - I mean, campaign - it's that no charge can remain unanswered. The fact that swift boating has entered the lexicon as a verb speaks to the wisdom of the strategy. However, I can't help but feel that the strength and vehemence of Obama's reaction was a mistake.

Whereas the damage from the original swift boat ads came from the words in the ads, the damage from the turban picture comes from the connotations that the picture will raise for people. Words are easy (at least relatively) to combat with words. Pictures are something else entirely. They say a picture is worth a thousand words. I'd say it might even take more than that.

I'm reminded of the famous story of Leslie Stahl, then a CBS news reporter, trying to run a critical piece on the Reagan administration. The thrust of the piece was the difference between the president's photo-ops and his actual policies. Stahl ran images of Reagan surrounded by smiling senior citizens while she intoned about his cuts to programs for the elderly. After the piece ran on the news Stahl expected retrubution in some form from the administration. Instead she was thanked. They knew that the power of the images was going to be greater than the power of her words. She's basically just run an extended campaign ad for the president.

In a more contemporary example, think of all the drug commerical ads where soothing images run while a dry voice explains the variety of unpleasant things that may happen to you if you take the drug. You'll remember the image long after you stop being able to recite the complete list of side effects.

Where I'm going with this is that through his campaign's reaction, Obama gave license for every paper in the country to publish that photo. In New York alone I saw it on the cover of multiple newspapers yesterday. Yes, each photo will be accompanied by an article explaining the broader context. But the campaign is putting a lot of faith in people's willingness to read the article and in the power of words to overpower images. While I'm hardly one to dismiss "just words" I think that's hoping for an awful lot.

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