Getting a lift out of politics

POLITICS is not my journalistic function, but I made an exception when I read, ``The podium at the Democratic National Convention features a hydraulic lift - in part, so that Michael Dukakis does not appear to be dwarfed by his running mate, the lanky Lloyd Bentsen Jr.'' The likely smile on a reader's face can well be replaced by a knowing nod, for stature is important in politics. Given an even choice otherwise, a voter is expected to go for the taller candidate. And 'twould be folly to take chances, for anybody seeking popular preferment should stand high. Lincoln was no pipsqueak, nor was Honest George, and our only president ever to be chief justice as well was the enormous William Howard Taft. Nobody else was ever that big. Goes to show.

But the hydraulic ascension of the Gentleman From Massachusetts is not really something new. We didn't have a mechanical high-rise here in Maine, but back in 1960 we could have used one and it might have changed our history. That was the year the height of the candidates for governor became an issue in the press and one of our daily newspapers ``slanted'' things vigorously.

Frank Morey Coffin was not a short man, but he was noticeably shorter than his opponent, John Hathaway Reed. Now and then, as the campaign ripened, the two men would be photographed together, and when a picture appeared in a paper, Mr. Reed's height was there for the voters to see. So one day this paper printed a picture of the two that showed Mr. Coffin a good six inches taller than Mr. Reed. This may not have been contrived at that time, but it gave the editor an idea. The effect was gained by the line of fire - the picture was made from an angle that accented perspective. And word came to the Reed campaign people that this editor had now instructed his photographers to make all future pictures of the two men after that kind.

Mr. Reed won the election, but probably not just because he was taller. He was told about this pictorial intention to cut him down to size and he bore it in mind. The campaign eased along in the early summer, and it wasn't until fair time that the two men came together again - on the stage in front of the grandstand at the horse race track.

Of the two men, Reed was the one more at home before a fair crowd. A country boy and a potato farmer, he loved horses, and used to race his own trotter at the fairs. He also liked the sulky races on ice, which are popular in northern Maine and in New Brunswick, and once wrote the authoritative piece on the subject for an encyclopedia.

After he became governor of Maine, he kept one of his horses near enough so he could make a few turns around the track before appearing at the State House at 7 a.m. So with the crowds at our country fairs Mr. Reed did have a rapport of value politically; he would mingle with the folks around the stables and he talked their language, without reference to stature.

All our fairs have the same grandstand at the race track, with the same stage across the way where the officials and judges have their places, with room for a band and the vaudeville acts that entertain between heats.

Here, on this afternoon, Mr. Coffin and Mr. Reed met, and they shook hands affably as if about to do a soft shoe dance together in friendly mood, and all the while Mr. Reed was looking about to see where that photographer might be. The hydraulic political lift wouldn't appear for 28 years, but there could be another way.

Mr. Reed located the photographer in the crowd, and saw him squinting to make sure his angle was right, and now Mr. Reed deftly stepped around Mr. Coffin and took a new position between Mr. Coffin and the camera. This reversed the desired angle, and the photographer had to scurry through the crowd and over to the other side to bring Mr. Coffin again into anything like lineal equality.

Those few of us who knew just what was going on admired the way Mr. Reed protected his ``good side.'' His movements seemed more like a rousing schottische than soft shoe, and since Mr. Coffin himself was unaware and innocent of the shenanigans, he seemed puzzled as to why his worthy opponent was jumping around so. The crowd didn't seem to notice any of this. And those of us in the know did look the next morning to see what the paper used for a picture, and it was plain that Mr. Reed had totally outmaneuvered the photographer.

We should all be cheered at this recollection, for it lends importance to the hydraulic lift at Atlanta. Up, up, and away!

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