Drop the shovel, skip the photo op

June 25, 2008|By KEVIN COWHERD

If I were running the presidential campaign of either Barack Obama or John McCain, my first decree would be this: no more photo ops at disaster sites.

Such photo ops always make you look dumb, I'd tell my guy. So they're out. We're not doing them anymore.

This is an issue right now because neither candidate came off looking too good when they toured the flooded Midwest the other day.

Obama was in Quincy, Ill., where the nearby Mississippi River was expected to reach a near-record 32 feet today.

If he had just popped in to say hi and deliver a few encouraging words to the beleaguered citizens, that would have been one thing.

Instead, with the TV cameras rolling, Obama picked up a shovel and began filling sandbags.

This is just what a town reeling from a natural disaster needs, of course: a politician with a huge security detail and media entourage in tow, crippling traffic and bringing all volunteer work to a standstill.

Which was pretty much what happened in Quincy.

All around Obama, sweaty volunteers could be seen taking a break from their work and gawking at the throng of media surrounding the Democratic candidate.

And here was Obama - dressed like something out of an L.L. Bean catalog - leisurely shoveling sand into bags while chatting with residents.

I'd like to know how many sandbags the guy actually filled.

Because you just knew once the cameras stopped rolling, he'd be ditching the shovel, hopping back into his SUV and cranking the AC full blast.

Then he and his staff were probably heading off to breakfast somewhere.

Of course, McCain, the Republican candidate, didn't look much better when he toured a flood site in Iowa.

McCain was decked out in what you'd call a disaster-casual outfit: baseball cap, button-down shirt with a little penguin logo or whatever that was, twill pants.

He looked like he'd just come from the Gap.

But at least he wasn't wearing one of those goofy safari outfits like Dan Rather used to wear whenever he reported from a troubled spot.

With Rather, you could never tell if he was heading into the middle of a hurricane or off to bag a rhino.

Anyway, no one handed McCain a shovel and led him toward a pile of sand, which was probably a good thing.

Instead, the senator spent his time doing a lot of pointing and nodding.

This is a favorite tactic of politicians who visit disaster sites for photo ops: Point a lot at the devastation, look concerned, ask questions to show you care, nod at the answers.

So McCain was in full point, ask and nod mode.

You could imagine his end of the conversation as local officials gave him a tour of the stricken area:

"Now what is that big body of water over there? The Mississippi River? Is that right?

"And, what, it overflowed into all these farmlands over here? And what are those things over there called, the ones that look like walls? Levees? Interesting. And they're supposed to do, what? Keep the water out? And what's that floating over there, a cow?"

Again, this is the danger of letting a candidate visit a disaster area to troll for votes.

These photo ops are supposed to make candidates look presidential and determined. They're supposed to make them look like commander-in-chief material.

But, usually, they make them look like some rube who's asking a lot of dopey questions and getting in everyone's way.

Both Obama and McCain were quoted as promising townspeople in these flooded areas that they'd do everything they could to make sure state and federal help was on the way.

But that could backfire on them, too, if voters take to the polls in November and remember a lot of empty promises uttered back in June.

Look, both candidates are going to have a hard enough time winning the White House as it is.

Obama has to overcome racial prejudice, the perception that he's too inexperienced and a smear campaign from the right that he's some secret Muslim who hates America and won't wear flag pins.

McCain has to convince people that he's not too old for the job, too out-of-touch and too wedded to the failed policies of the Bush administration.

The last thing either one needs is to look goofy on the nightly news.

But that's sure how they looked as they stumbled around the flooded Midwest.

kevin.cowherd@baltsun.com

Online

To see videos of Obama and McCain in the flooded Midwest, go to baltimoresun.com/floods

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