Politics & Policy

Picture Imperfect

Kerry has lived up to the negative image.

Scholars of political communication contend that successful candidates are those about whom overarching, consistent, positive, and sustained themes are marshaled. Similarly, losing candidates are those about whom negative themes prevail. Political-communication theorists refer to this phenomenon as “framing,” as in the framing of a picture. Change the frame, and you change the appearance of the picture that fits inside it.

One such scholar, Professor Jim A. Kuypers of Dartmouth College, defines framing as “the process whereby communicators act–consciously or not–to construct a particular point of view that encourages the facts of a given situation to be viewed in a particular manner, with some facts more or less noticeable (even ignored) than others.” If and when President Bush is reelected (I try to follow the Kerry Spot’s admonition to “ignore the polls”), we may well look back at the 2004 campaign and cite three occurrences that combined to portend the death knell for John Kerry: (1) the advertising and book, Unfit for Command, produced by the Swift-boat vets; (2) the flip-flop charge launched by Bush/Cheney; and (3) Kerry’s reference to Mary Cheney in the third presidential debate. Although each serves individually to chip away at Kerry’s electoral chances, taken together they frame Kerry’s candidacy by weaving together the themes of an opportunistic, vacillating, and politically ruthless candidate.

In August, following closely on the heels of the Democratic convention, the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth unveiled a series of ads questioning Senator Kerry’s account of his four and a half months in Vietnam and his behavior after he returned from the war. The charges in those ads (and in Unfit for Command) included inflating his battle record, claiming Purple Hearts for minor wounds, leaving his comrades behind by taking advantage of a rarely used rationale for leaving combat, and betraying his fellow soldiers with his antiwar activities. For those veterans, Kerry was no hero; he was a cynical opportunist.

In September, the Bush/Cheney campaign revved up the flip-flop charges it had been using against the senator since he won the Democratic nomination in March. On both foreign policy (particularly regarding the Iraq war) and domestic policy (e.g., Kerry’s inconsistent or changed positions on No Child Left Behind, gay marriage, and NAFTA), the Bush campaign painted a picture of the senator as contradictory and vacillating. In one Bush/Cheney ad, a manipulated video clip of John Kerry wind-surfing back and forth cemented the charge visually.

Kerry’s response to the Swift-boat vets in August was to ignore them. His response to the flip-flop charges in September was to deny them.

And then came October.

In the third presidential debate on October 13, Kerry’s response to one question would set off a firestorm, become the dominant topic of the following Sunday morning’s talk shows, and add one final piece of evidence to voters’ accumulation of impressions–the frame–of John Kerry.

In that debate, moderator Bob Schieffer of CBS asked the candidates, “Do you believe homosexuality is a choice?” John Kerry opted to make Vice President Dick Cheney’s daughter, Mary Cheney, the focus of his answer:

We’re all God’s children, Bob. And I think if you were to talk to Dick Cheney’s daughter, who is a lesbian, she would tell you she’s being who she was, she’s being who she was born as.

Immediately after that debate, Kerry spokeswoman Mary Beth Cahill opined that Kerry’s use of Mary Cheney as part of his answer was not a problem because the vice president’s daughter was “fair game.”

Lynne Cheney’s immediate response was to condemn Kerry, characterize him as “not a good man,” and accuse him of engaging in a “cheap and tawdry political trick.” Dick Cheney cemented the image of John Kerry as cynical and unprincipled:

You saw a man who would say and do anything to get elected. And I’m not speaking just as a father here, though I am a pretty angry father, but as a citizen.

This was not the vice president of the United States speaking; this was not a politician speaking. This was Dick Cheney, removing himself from the political fray, and responding as a father and citizen–just as Lynne Cheney had spoken from her heart as a mother. Both Cheneys now appeared to much of the public not as a couple caught up in an ordinary political fracas, but as an aggrieved mom and dad. This clearly resonated: A Washington Post/ABC poll showed that two-thirds of respondents thought Kerry’s bringing up of Mary Cheney was “inappropriate.”

The Kerry/Edwards campaign tried to rescue Kerry from what was widely seen as a major gaffe. Campaign spokesmen downplayed the remark and claimed the Republicans were making a fuss over nothing. When asked by the Des Moines Register whether he regretted his comments about Mary Cheney in the debate, Kerry sputtered that he was “surprised at the reaction” because he was only trying to be “respectful. Purely respectful.” Elizabeth Edwards, wife of vice-presidential candidate John Edwards, saw Mrs. Cheney’s reaction in a different way: “I think that it indicates a certain shame with respect to their daughter’s sexual preferences. . . It makes me really sad that that’s Lynne’s response.”

On as tender an issue as the relationship between the Cheneys and their daughter, in short, the Kerry/Edwards camp tried exploitation (beginning actually with Edwards in the vice-presidential debate), then treated it as ordinary politics (Cahill), then moved to expressions of feigned mystification that anyone could have taken offense (Kerry), and finally expressed the position that maybe the problem was actually in the Cheneys’ hearts and minds (Elizabeth Edwards). None of this could possibly help restore a positive image of Kerry in the public mind as a caring, compassionate, or principled politician.

In his keynote address at the Republican convention, Democrat Senator Zell Miller set in place the frame that would cumulatively develop throughout August, September, and October when he said:

And like you, I ask which leader is it today that has the vision, the willpower and, yes, the backbone to best protect my family? The clear answer to that question has placed me in this hall with you tonight. For my family is more important than my party. There is but one man to whom I am willing to entrust their future and that man’s name is George Bush.

The answer to Senator Miller’s question is certainly not someone who is opportunistic (as the Swifties charged), vacillating (as the flip-flop characterization maintained), and willing to engage in politically expedient use of a father’s daughter. If (and oh please let it be when) President Bush and Vice President Cheney win reelection, we can say that it is because John Kerry stepped right into the frame and filled out the picture for voters.

Gwen Brown is associate professor of communication at Radford University in Virginia.

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