In the soup
When Paul Ryan rushed from a Youngstown campaign event into a St. Vincent De Paul Society soup kitchen last week, donning an apron and posing at the dishwashing station, he was engaging in a thoroughly staged but effective, until lately, political stunt. Hoping to distract voters and change their image, politicians often stage photo-ops.
With the reach of the Internet, Ryan's intended misdirection went awry and the failed ploy was quickly fodder for those who rely on computers for their news. The director of the charity, which is revered for feeding and caring for the poorest of society, was outraged that his program was hijacked for purely political gain.
“It was the phoniest piece of baloney I've ever been associated with,” said Brian J. Antal. “We are a faith-based organization. We are apolitical,” he added, while expressing concern that such a transparent scam by any party's politicians could cost the charity private donations.
These charades were once the stock and trade of campaigning, even idealized in popular culture. In Edwin O'Connor's “The Last Hurrah,” the dawn of gimmicky photo-op politicking is set in Boston, where fictional Mayor Frank Skeffington tries to win one last re-election against a young empty suit named Kevin McCluskey.
McCluskey's handlers created a perfect family for public presentation, putting him on television with his wife and children and a rented dog. This freshly minted friend to man and beast alike then went on to beat the old pol.
In the real political arena, dogs have had a good run. The website Keystone Politics recently posted two photographs from campaign literature distributed by Pennsylvania state Rep. Rob Kauffman. The first is a great photo of a beautiful family, and the second, sent to voters weeks later, is identical but for the magical addition of a dog.
Kauffman says that Cora, looking all the world like Dorothy's Toto while oozing voter appeal, was added after the family portrait was taken because she was not adopted until then. Adding Cora is the kind of thing that you would do for your kids and it would have hardly made a political ripple without the speed and reach of the Internet.
It all makes Richard Nixon, awkwardly running in the surf, wearing dress pants and go-to-church shoes, his own Yorkie jumping about, strangely reminiscent of more innocent times. It was simple failed stagecraft, not electronic legerdemain, that made an uptight guy seem more uptight.
If phony soup kitchen visits and conjured dogs no longer work in campaigns, politicians will have to run on their unvarnished records. Then, Ryan would have to explain his budget, which the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops says “will hurt hungry children, poor families, vulnerable seniors and workers who cannot find employment.”
A staged photo-op in a place where the hungry are fed will never make up for cutting the programs that “serve poor and vulnerable people.” Not even a rented dog could change that.
Joseph Sabino Mistick, a lawyer, law professor and political analyst, lives in Squirrel Hill (SabinoMistick@aol.com).