Spare Us the Jeb Image Makeover
It was recently reported that Jeb Bush planned to hire an image consultant known for his successful work with television news personalities. It’s no surprise that a consultant can help a TV personality — they’re already telegenic, but a plodding politician? I’m not so sure. The last thing that the PR industry wants you to know is that image makeovers almost never work and, when they do, they take a long, long time. The good news for Jeb is that an image makeover may not even be necessary.
Where once Hollywood mythologized cowboys, spies and super cops, the glow of omnipotence has recently fallen on the spin doctor. In recent years spin doctors have captured the consciousness of show business. The films Wag the Dog, Michael Clayton and the new Sandra Bullock movie, Our Brand is Crisis, are but a few. Then there are the TV shows Scandal, The Good Wife, Suits and Ray Donovan, all of which feature fixers of varying stripes who never fail to fool the public into believing things they would never otherwise believe, or eliminate inconvenient investigative reporters.
All of this has been fantastic for what I call in my new book, Glass Jaw, the “spindustrial complex,” the confederacy of PR consultants and advertising conglomerates that hawk Jedi mind tricks with abandon. Among these wizards are those who suggest that they have an algorithm for erasing the Internet when inconvenient facts appear.
The truth, especially in politics, is that things that are attributed to “spin” and “packaging” often have other explanations. While Presidents Kennedy, Reagan and Obama were all thought to be packaged candidates, these were usually derisive observations by their detractors. Regardless of one’s politics, the truth is that these politicians had intrinsic appeal and came along at times where their attributes intersected with a cultural climate that magnified their strengths.
One thing that our spin worship fails to accommodate is that since the beginning of the republic, we have elected plenty of flawed, if uninspired, candidates. When this occurs it is because the electorate has accepted the candidate for who he is. While I was never a big supporter of Vice President Al Gore, I thought that if he had handled his 2000 campaign with the humanity he conveyed during his concession speech he might have been elected president. He was relaxed, funny, unselfconscious and charmingly awkward — the opposite demeanor of his over-consulted candidate whose very wardrobe was reportedly chosen with the help of specialists and focus groups.
Richard Nixon was elected by a landslide at the height of the counterculture that despised him. Despite his obsession with image-making — his top adviser H.R. Haldeman was an advertising executive with the venerable J. Walter Thompson agency — the public turned out for Nixon in droves because he wasn’t cool, not because his feeble attempts to appear charismatic actually worked. One of Nixon’s more desperate stunts to appear more Kennedyesque was to take a walk on the beach — which he did all bundled up in a coat, long pants and wingtip shoes taking those long, dorky strides of his.
If Jeb is to win his party’s nomination, it will be because the electorate has accepted him for who he is and believes that the qualities he possesses are right for the times, as the electorate did with Nixon. The problem at the moment is that Republican voters have made it abundantly clear that they want someone who disdains the political apparatus even if disdain is their only qualification, as is the case with Trump.