Saturday, July 27, 2019

From the Archives: 270 years of bad optics

Editors' Note:  Last week a distinguished American prosecutor, former FBI director, and war hero confirmed to Congress that the President had fulfilled each of the elements required for conviction on obstruction of justice charges multiple times and that said President's campaign had had multiple unexplained contacts with agents of a hostile foreign power and reported none of them to law enforcement.   We were then told by media wise heads with stupid haircuts that the testimony failed to make an impact because of “optics.”  We wondered if our 276-year archives contained any previous examples of speechifying that passed unnoticed for reasons related to the refraction of light through glass.  Guess what?  They did!

The Massachusetts Spy, August 18, 1776:

In a ho-hum ceremony, some men signed a letter in Philadelphia


By Charles Todd
By Packet Boat to The Massachusetts Spy

After sedulous deliberations in the fetid malarial swamp that is Philadelphia, representatives of the various colonies listed their complaints against King George III in an effort to win popular support for their uprising against British imperial rule.

The lengthy document, ordered to be printed on July 4, and then distributed over time in the several colonies, recapitulated the colonists' various grievances and complaints against the British King and His Majesty's Government but added nothing to what we already knew about the injustices the colonies have suffered at the hands of the House of Hanover.

Also blunting the hoped-for impact of the document, it was released in a tedious ceremony in which multiple men signed it laboriously with a quill pen.  Some speculated that it would have had more impact had it been read out during, for example, a cockfight.

“It's hard to see anyone's mind being changed just because some merchants and slaveholders signed a long list of complaints,” said Thomas Hutchinson, formerly of Boston, who described himself as a undecided voter.  “There's really no news here.”

Others suggested the so-called Declaration of Independence should have been released during a clambake at the Atlantic City, rather than in the depths of another fetid Pennsylvania summer.  “Imagine how much more attention it would have gotten if it were read out by hot colonial girls in their bathing costumes, ” said Fred C. Drumpf, who described his profession as relaxation adviser.

The Massachusetts Spy, November 20, 1863:


From Todd Charles
By Telegraph  to The Massachusetts Spy

Looking shockingly haggard and struggling to make himself heard, a weary Abraham Lincoln dedicated a new cemetery at the site of the late Battle of Gettysburg with a few remarks that even he admitted would be soon forgotten.

The optics were terrible at Gettysburg
Against the backdrop of an apparently endless effusion of blood that has thus far failed to quench the Confederate rebellion, Lincoln, in a high, quavering voice that failed to reach most of the large crowd, utterly failed to build on the excitement and enthusiasm generated by Edward Everett's memorable retelling of the Battle.

By contrast, Lincoln's remarks were a bloodless recapitulation of abstract principles of government and did not include even a single exciting detail of the great encounter.  Former Army Chief of Staff George McClellan described it as “an incredible wasted opportunity.  As for whether Lincoln is able to lead the United States to victory, I say: case closed.”

Privately, some aides close to Secretary of State William Seward said it had been a mistake to rely on a tired, old Abraham Lincoln to rally his citizens to the Union cause.  “I can't believe how much the war has aged him.  Had we known that, we probably wouldn't have even let him take the stage,” one insider told the Spy.

The audience reaction was generally downbeat.  “If this is how the Union intends to inspire its Army to victory, the war is as good as lost,” said Nate Forrest, an area farmer and traveler.

“It's time for old Abe to admit he can't beat the South on the battlefield and to negotiate a peace that would end the bloodshed and restore slavery to the Territories,” said Braxton Bragg.

A draft-age young man in the audience was similarly unimpressed.  “Fight for this old weird guy?   It's a good thing I had $300 to pay a substitute so I could make my fortune in New York,” said the man, who gave his name as Donald J. Drumpf, Queens, New York.

The Massachusetts Spy, December 9, 1941:


Congress hears Roosevelt in drab session


By Charles Todson
Special to The Massachusetts Spy

WASHINGTON, D.C. – His withered body propped up by steel braces, a rapidly aging President Franklin D. Roosevelt announced that he would try to lead his country to victory in Japan, in the aftermath of its attack on U.S. military facilities at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.

In his characteristic aristocratic orotund voice, Roosevelt urged the Congress to declare war on the Empire of Japan.  The Congress did so, notwithstanding the lack of exciting optics such as newsreel footage from Pearl Harbor or eyewitness reports from U.S. forces who were attacked on December 7.

Sticking to his just-the-facts style, Roosevelt argued that the Pearl Harbor attack was an adequate justification for war.  In his only rhetorical flourish, Roosevelt described December 7 as a “day that will live in infamy.”

Many observers thought the rhetoric fell flat.  “Who even knows what the word infamy means?  He should try to use non-technical language,” said Sen. Robert Taft of Ohio.

Although the tableaux in Washington was dull, the declaration was passed against a backdrop of exciting developments in Hawaii and the Philippine Islands, where additional Japanese attacks were reported by the charismatic Commander-in-Chief there, Gen. Douglas MacArthur.

Important media figures criticized the President for failing to rally the nation in a time of war.  “Why didn't Roosevelt call for all Japs in the U.S. to be locked up?” asked Chicago Tribune Publisher Col. Robert McCormick.

Leading politicians echoed concerns about Roosevelt's failure to advocate for homeland protection.  “We have tens of thousands of disloyal Japs in California ready to strike.  Why didn't Roosevelt promise to lock them up or send them back?” asked California Gov. Earl Warren.

Observers reported that the President's remarks had failed to spark a rush to military recruiting stations.  In Jamaica, Queens, one man of military age said he was unable to serve due to crippling bone spurs.  “I'll tell you one thing this war is good for: the real estate business,” commented the man, who gave his name as Fred C. Trumpf.

The Massachusetts Spy, June 17, 2015:

Donald J. Trump and his Brains Trust


By Chuck Todd
NBC News 
with witty repartee from Maureen Dowd
New York Times News Service

NEW YORK, N.Y. – In a masterfully planned and executed piece of made-for-TV magic, failed reality talk show host Donald J. Trump today announced his hilarious bid for President of the United States, in a strategy that appeared to be directed at gaining a lucrative cable TV contract for his irresistible blend of bluster and bravado.

From the descent down the golden escalator at his marble palace, to the shills he hired to cheer for him, the whole event showed why Trump is regarded as a master showman.  All the stagecraft was there, down to the beautiful girls strategically positioned around the Trump Tower lobby.  “No one stages an event like the Donald, unless it's me,” said an admiring friend, who gave his name as Jeff Epstein.

His speech featured plenty of the tough he-man talk that he is so famous for, and the crowd loved it, especially the bit about how Mexico is sending rapists and assassins across the border.  Of course, no one took it seriously, because when it's the Donald, he's always selling the sizzle and not the steak, vodka, water, airline, casino, game, magazine, or education.

Fortunately with experienced Republicans like Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio already in the race, no one has to worry about Trump accepting the nomination at the 2016 Republican Convention, but it sure does spice up what otherwise might be a somewhat staid debate among Republicans about tax cuts for the rich and cutting benefits for the poor.  Thank you Donald for saving us from that snoozefest!

Maureen Dowd wrote:  It would take even more imagination than Trump himself possesses to see the failed casino magnate share a debate stage with likely Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, but this brilliant, famous columnist with a fabulous Georgetown salon would look forward to the Donald asking the Hillary why she wouldn't divorce her horndog husband.

But just think – if the Donald and Hillary faced off on Election Day 2016, it would truly be the year of voting dangerously.  Hey, wait a minute, that's genius. Genius!  Gotta call my publisher.

Back to you, Chuck.

Chuck Todd: One thing's for sure: the optics are compelling. [Stop staring at Melania's cans, Chuck – M.D.]

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