The papers of late have been full of pictures of the front runners in the presidential nominating races surrounded by throngs of near delirious supporters eager to touch the hem of the political celebrity who has come to their otherwise inconsequential state. (OK, I’ll retract that last remark in respect to South Carolina, which has started a war.) These photos are full of the energy of massed bodies, close encounters, and the charismatic touch. They are representative of important features of our political process, for better or worse, but they don’t tell the whole story. To get closer to that, we have to look elsewhere, like here:
You are looking at a photo from last week of Fred Thompson stepping onto a stage in Prosperity, South Carolina. The long view allows us to see the candidate as part of a scene, rather someone around whom everything else is compressed. The view also isolates each part of the scene: candidate, bunting, handler, local supporter, and wife-and-kid are each identifiable as if pieces of a grade school diorama. What is most revealing, however, is that we see both stage and backstage in a single view. What would have been The Candidate framed by the Red White and Blue becomes instead a tacky stage set–hey, don’t trip on that cord! And instead of those gathered in his name, we see instead wife-and-kid waiting in the wings, or waiting to make their entrance, but either way now bit players that make Thompson no more than the lead in the school play.
I suspect that this image is presented to remind us that Thompson’s campaign remains a non-starter. One reason I think so is because the shot above called to mind another taken last year:
Now we’re in Anderson, South Carolina. Not much has changed. Again, the key element of composition is that we are shown both stage and backstage. And as before, the difference between front and back is only a flimsy curtain and our customary inattention to political stagecraft. This photo may be a bit more grim in that we see Thompson just before he puts on his theatrical mask. And we see a bit more of the area behind the curtain–enough to really know that backstage is a cold, harsh, functional place of calculation and paying the bill.
Again, the message is that this guy is not going to win. He’s playing on far too small a stage in too small a place to what barely counts as an audience. (Pop Quiz: how old will Thompson by the time that kid on the left votes?) That’s not exactly news, however. I think the real value of these images is that they show us what every candidate experiences and endures. The big winners only get there by playing before small houses like these in the community theater of American politics. And when some of them make it, the stage gets larger, but there is always a stage.
Photographs by Jim Wilson/New York Times and Mary Ann Chastain/Associated Press.