May the man who stands in front of the most flags win.
May the man who stands in front of the most flags win.
Perhaps this is how American presidential elections will be decided in the future. It certainly seems to be the way this one is getting settled.
With images, rather than words.
And why not? In the weeks following the election, we've seen legal authority thrown to the wind, with statute contradicting statute, court questioning court and the news media saturating their own airwaves with pundits who think nothing of second-guessing judges.
With no one clearly in charge and the US presidency hanging in the balance, politics is preceding without precedent and PR is stepping in where the Constitution seems unable to go.
It's not hard to see why images are so important in this post-election chaos. The American public has neither the patience, the attention span nor the legal education to follow the battle in the courts, hinging as they do on the tiny swinging chads of Florida statute and Constitutional interpretation. Having initially attempted to educate the public to the ins and outs of election law, both candidates' teams are increasingly turning to the use of far more basic but manipulative images to influence public opinion.
Reviving flagging interest
Conflicting statutes, while endlessly thrilling to an audience of lawyers, means little to the American public, and won't hold its attention. But a calm, well-composed man wearing a dark suit and a red tie, speaking in comforting tones, standing in front of more American flags than you'd find in a VFW hall on the Fourth of July, sets a tone to proceedings, however nebulous the authority on which they are based.
The PR imagery deployed has taken many forms. The flag maneuver has become something of a joke (parodied by David Letterman) as both sides progressively added extra flags to their staged backdrops. But other staged photo ops have sent out powerful images.
Perhaps the most intriguing has been the official ceremony presided over by Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris, in which she awarded electoral votes on national TV.
Harris broke onto national television on Sunday, November 26th at 7:30 in the evening to officially declare George W. Bush winner of Florida's vote, and by extension, the national election. The deadline set by the Florida Supreme Court for submitting recounted ballots had passed, and Harris pronounced Bush the winner by a margin of 537 votes.
Harris admitted that the ceremony was not normal. 'Because of the great interest in our actions, we are meeting publicly rather than individually, as has been our traditional practice,' she explained.
As a public spectacle, the aim was to put an air of finality on an event that risked looking more like the latest link in the post-election chain of events. When Harris came on the air Sunday night, what the networks were expecting was an announcement. What they ended up showing was a lengthy, often silent ceremony that, by Harris' own admission, was legally superfluous.
'It was brilliant,' says Harris Diamond, president and CEO of BSMG and a former political adviser. 'They interrupted Sunday night television and came out with her cohorts dressed in all their regalia. There was all this dead air as they passed the papers from one person to the next.
It was brilliant in its solemn tone, and its setting.'
Harris adds: 'I haven't seen anything like this since Mike Deaver in his heyday with Ronnie Reagan in its use of location and dress codes.
It really had this air of authority and finality.'
The power of ceremony
According to Lief Carter, professor of political science at Colorado College and author of several books on Constitutional law and legal theory, the procedure was justified given the circumstances.
Asked whether this was a PR tactic or a legal necessity, he says 'It was somewhere in the middle.'
Reflecting Katherine Harris' own statements from the 26th, Carter says that the papers signed were surely necessary. What wasn't, he says, was for all the officials to gather together to sign them, much less to televise the event.
'Politics is a game,' says Carter, 'and in the confusion, Ms. Harris chose to go public. I'm sure Florida law gives the secretary of state discretion to do her job as she sees fit.'
The punchline is this. Although Harris has been demonized by large portions of the media, the image worked. For the first time since Election Day, opinion polls showed the majority of the public agreeing that the vice president should drop his challenge.
An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll from just two weeks prior had showed 55% of voters willing to wait for a recount, even if it took weeks. In an almost perfect turnaround, a Reuters/Zogby poll released on November 29, conducted in the wake of Florida's 'ceremony,' showed 57% saying Gore should concede, and only 37% still voicing support for his cause. That's a pretty significant shift for such a short period of time.
So what is the lesson here? According to Diamond, it proves 'the public still believes in the power of ceremony, which will always triumph over substance.'
But he also puts blame at the door of the press, who, he says, failed to step in to provide adequate context. 'What this shows is that the media can still be stage managed. Once it became apparent what was going on, they should have explained. But the media have become so concerned with just being commentators and not reporters, that they've become part of the process, and they're jeopardizing their standing with the public.
They need to fix that.'
Politicians will be politicians, and this national game of Capture the Flag being played on TV is to be expected. But when the press, the supposed referee in this match, is too busy picking a winner to spot the occasional foul, the game itself becomes suspect. And once that happens, the audience is likely to think the winner is whomever they see holding the flag - or at least standing in front of one.
But it wasn't that simple.
The vice president had already made it clear that he would contest the election. And by now, both Harris and Bush had broken into network television so many times, it didn't necessarily signal a major news event to viewers. Not to mention that most people by this point didn't know which court decision had been made or who was even in charge anymore.
And, as any member of the press can tell you, it certainly wasn't going to be the first time George W. Bush had been declared the winner in Florida.