PRINT November 1988


The News and Its Pictures

ALTHOUGH WE’RE AT THE END of a thoroughly dreadful and some might even say heinous presidential campaign, there is still time to meditate on our political process. One of the most obvious things to think about is how the spectrum of the politically permissible in this country runs the gamut from A to B. Despite this disheartening fact, pictorial analysis of large groups of Democrats and Republicans attending their respective conventions shows that there is indeed a difference between the two sorry parties. So, even given all the prevarication, hypocrisy, evasiveness, quibbling, fibbing, faking, dissembling, and perversion we have been subjected to, we might be able to discern why we should continue to involve ourselves in a process that is presided over by such a bunch of humorless, immoral numskulls. Therefore, in the service of setting the record straight—and salvaging our sanity—I offer my own honest, eye-opening snapshots to point up the contrasts between Democrats and Republicans. A staple of political conventions and the photographer’s best friend, few people in funny hats can escape looking like born fools. Some, however, such as this Jesse Jackson delegate, can convey a message of progress and optimism with their decorative headgear. Having probably experienced a lifetime of our government at work, however, this delegate also wears an expression indicating an underlying skepticism that this political process is ever going to do jack zip for her.

Other hats, such as the one worn by this Pat Robertson supporter, remind you that Diane Arbus didn’t invent the people she photographed. She simply waited for them to tear the rims off their Styrofoam campaign hats, smash an old army helmet over them, grab an American flag, and goosestep in her direction. What does it take to get a young Republican to turn himself into a one-person billboard for death and destruction? Not much, judging from the spooky self-desecration happily exhibited by this youthful enthusiast. Notice, too, the conflict he shows about his appearance. Is it modesty and the desire not to be recognized that inspires him to wear his Ray-Bans at 11 o’clock at night?

In contrast, witness the young man wearing the Dukakis feed-‘n’-seed cap and festooned with traditional political buttons—none of them on his face. Clean-cut, well-behaved, psychologically stable, and probably working for nothing at the Democratic convention, he’s the type of youngster the Republicans pretend is just like one of their children.

New York’s Democratic Governor Mario Cuomo has lots of negatives, including not being the kind of leader that the people who voted for him wanted, and not running for the presidency in 1988. Nevertheless, he still has plenty of admirable attributes. The most obvious—a cuddly, pliable face capable of squeezing itself into some of the cutest, most ironic expressions ever sported by a politician. Here he is doing his turn on the perennial disbelief all elected officials must feel about the things people say to them.

On the Republican side, however, we have the likes of Utah Senator Orrin Hatch, the man who went high profile during the Iran-Contra hearings by congratulating Oliver North for his criminal behavior, and who has called the Democrats “the party of homosexuals.” The strange deathmask-like illusionism in this picture, which makes it look as if the senator’s face is detached from his body, is actually a quite realistic depiction of a man whose usual expression suggests that he probably gets his skin screwed on. CBS’s Lesley Stahl looks none too happy about being photographed holding the “No Contra Aid” sign that her cameraman is using for some kind of test, the myth of objectivity still being the general masquerade amongst many journalists. Stahl’s predicament aside, it shows the kind of stuff you could readily lay your hands on at the Democratic convention: signs that spelled out concern for issues such as AIDS (Silence = Death buttons were highly visible), the environment, and equal rights, many of them problems that a majority of Americans in both parties are vitally concerned about, even though their government has ignored or otherwise defeated them for many long years.

At the Republican convention signs were either of the happy-faced Hallmark variety—Welcome Dan! and Ohio Loves Bush!, etc.—or the deeply disturbed. At the rivers-edge rally where George Bush will spring Dan Quayle on an expectant world, nutso conservatism manifests itself in anticommie sentiments and the pummeling of AIDS protesters. Of course, the signs are homespun. Utilizing squadrons of young Republicans armed with magic markers and a decided lack of design ability, thousands of hand-lettered signs were turned out for use at the convention, giving the entire corporate fiesta that homey, handmade look. There was entirely too much praying at both conventions. Invocations, benedictions, Billy Graham—heads bent in prayer during events that are essentially television commercials are a revolting sight to witness. Once again, though, there is an essential difference between the two parties. Democrats assume a variety of pious attitudes, from unctuous devotion to barely faking it. Republicans, however (although they probably span the same spectrum in terms of real attitude), treat prayer as a form of revenge. Our father—we’ll get every last one—who art in heaven—of you dirty, card-carrying—hallowed be thy name—liberals. Luckily, despite the impediment of prayer, ABC’s Sam Donaldson always stays on top of his job, although when the Republican supplication is over he will inadvertently brush past the devout young blond woman at right. When she sees who it is, she will bare her teeth, glare, and heatedly wipe off her arm. And they say prayer is a balm to the spirit.

Like funny hats, balloons are a beloved and indispensable part of our political process. The release of red, white, and blue inflated orbs over a crowd during emotional convention finales is deemed the festive way to celebrate the candidate, the acceptance speech, and the end of four days of living hell. On the night Dukakis delivers his acceptance speech in Atlanta, the tricolors are a nice finishing touch to an emotional evening that has been capped by the spectacle of every Democrat of any stature taking to the podium along with the beaming candidate. The balloons waft down gently over the excited crowd, a bonus to a heartwarming event.

In contrast, by the final night of the Republican convention the crowd has worked itself into a frenzy of hysterical self-interest masquerading as morality. Prayer in the schools! The pledge to the flag! Eight more years of escalating profits! Suddenly huge caches of killer balloons are released from the heights of the Superdome and somewhere in the range of 200,000 of them are dumped on the crowd. These orbs don’t waft; they come down with a vengeance, pelting and bashing. Giddy, the Republicans cast off their Sunday school demeanor and jump and stomp on their attackers. Lest any escape unbroken, they turn their little American flags upside down and, using the gold points at the ends, they stab, stab, stab until all the balloons are destroyed. Haiti, one photographer says. It’s like Haiti during the elections.

Carol Squiers is a writer and curator and an associate editor at American Photographer. Her column appears regularly in Artforum.