Polishing the Image, Ever Since Honest Abe

January 10, 1995|By RICHARD REEVES

New York -- A few weeks before he died, former president Richard Nixon watched President Clinton performing on television and called a friend to say: ''That biting-the-lip thing works for him. I'm sure he's rehearsed it for a long time, but it makes good pictures.''

In their business, politics, the image is the man. But that did not begin with television. The date visual image arrived to rule us forever was probably February 27, 1860, when a 51-year-old Illinois politician named Abraham Lincoln arrived at the door of the Manhattan studio of photographer Matthew Brady.

Brady pulled up Lincoln's collar to make his neck look shorter. (One of Lincoln's successors as president, an Illinois boy named Ronald Reagan, wore shirts with special collars to make his neck look longer.) Brady photographed the clean-shaven former congressman standing with his left hand resting on a book, perhaps a Bible. Abe Lincoln always believed that the Brady photograph -- reprinted as an engraving in magazines and on campaign posters and buttons -- was what made him president within the year.

That photograph is one of 136 of Lincoln known to exist. It is also one of hundreds in a marvelous exhibition titled ''American Politicians -- Photographs From 1843 to 1995'' at the Museum of Modern Art. Of that photograph, the show's curator, Susan Kismaric, wrote: ''For the first time, citizens had more than the name of a person running for president. They knew what he looked like, which made him more real to them.''

From an 1843 daguerreotype of John Quincy Adams, taken 15 years after he left the White House, to photographs of Bill Clinton at work, the show is an enlightening tour of the critical and ever-changing union between the technology of communications and the practices of democracy. Lincoln's use of Brady photographs makes a joke of the conventional wisdom that he never could have been elected in a television age because his voice was too high-pitched or because he was considered an ugly fellow in his day.

In fact, ''Honest Abe'' (clever ''spin'' there) was a professional, learning what he had to learn, doing what he had to do, and adjusting to the new scientific wonders of his time -- a time when the speed of information transmission exploded from being as fast (or slow) as a train or a steamboat to the more-or-less instantaneous transmission of the telegraph.

And Bill Clinton, the one practicing lip-biting in front of his mirror, would have mastered the techniques of torchlight parades and day-long campaign debates in an era when Lincoln and Stephen Douglas were considered entertainers before they were ever judged as lawmakers or statesmen.

Politics and image have always been inseparable. That is why John F. Kennedy, the most impatient of men, was willing and able to spend hour after hour staring at photographs of himself, deciding which of them to make public.

You could make an argument that the 1960 election was decided before it began when Kennedy and Richard Nixon, both Navy lieutenants in the Pacific during World War II, chose their campaign photos. Nixon presented himself in dress blues, standing at attention. Kennedy's war image was a photo of himself in the cockpit of his torpedo boat, PT-109, bare-chested and grinning, wearing sunglasses and a fatigue cap with the brim pushed up. Which one would you follow?

The most amazing photo at the museum, by the way, is of Nixon. Taken in 1974 in Belgium by Charles Tasnadi of The Associated Press, it shows Nixon shaking hands with locals across a low fence -- and looking at his watch! A close second is an 1864 print of Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, showing the future president being fitted into a head brace so he could remain still for the several seconds required for wet-plate negatives in those early days.

(The show also features Eugene Smith's 1948 photograph for Life magazine of Harry S. Truman holding up the Chicago Tribune of Election Day, 1948, with the famous headline, ''Dewey Defeats Truman.'' The question, of course, is how famous that image and moment would be if there were no photograph of it.)

Grant had to be sort of strapped in because it was not until 1871 that dry-process techniques advanced to the point that ''snapshots'' could be made by camera lenses that opened for 1/24th of a second. Such technological advances sometimes had as much to do with political success as intelligence, looks or honesty.

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