Image and Reality in Politics

NINE point eight seconds.

That was a very famous number, briefly, a few years ago. Media critic Kiku Adatto determined that the average length of a ''sound bite'' during the 1988 election campaign had shrunk to 9.8 seconds. The figure often got rounded down -- incorrectly, but understandably -- to a mere nine seconds. In earlier, more innocent times, candidates for office were often allowed to run on for, oh, up to a whole minute. Ms. Adatto's research on this, discussed in a 1990 article in The New Republic, helped focus attention on the incredible shrinking sound bite and nudge the television networks into letting the candidates have a somewhat longer say during the 1992 campaign.

Adatto's 1993 book ''Picture Perfect: The Art and Artifice of Public Image Making'' (Basic Books) came to hand the other day. In this presidential pre-season, with new candidates vying for attention at each carefully calibrated phase of their launches -- Bob Dole is to announce officially on April 10 -- her observations of the political process are on the mark.

Adatto helpfully reminds us that Abraham Lincoln's use of Mathew Brady's photographs of him represented political imagemaking with the latest technologies then available. She also points to a paradox of media coverage of imagemaking campaigns: that it is hard to report on images without carrying the images -- running clips of political ads, for instance -- and it is impossible to carry an image without conveying the message of that image. An image cannot really be run in quotation marks, so to speak.

The voters of New Hampshire have long been mindful of their roles as extras in a long-running production of political theater. And in her book, Adatto mentions a cartoon that ran during the 1992 primaries: Two Southerners on the ramshackle front porch of a general store called ''Bubba's'' are talking politics, and one observes to the other, ''I like Buchanan's sound bites but Clinton and Tsongas have slicker production values.''

When Bubba and friends can talk knowledgably about sound bites and production values, and probably focus groups, approval ratings, and the ''message of the day,'' too, the machinery of political imagemaking has become visible enough that the voters can begin to discount for it.

Consider the candidacy of Lamar Alexander, another Republican presidential hopeful this season. In another era, this former chief of staff to a Senate minority leader (Howard Baker) and former secretary of education would be presenting himself as an experienced public servant. But officially launching his campaign in New Hampshire, he ostentatiously underscored his claim to be a ''Washington outsider.'' He has pretty good credentials as a moderate Republican, the kind of centrist who should appeal to the millions of swing voters likely to be shopping for an alternative to Bill Clinton in 1996. But in the campaign for his party's nomination, Mr. Alexander, like Bob Dole, has been edging to the right to compete with Phil Gramm and even Pat Buchanan on their turf.

In this, Alexander risks coming across as a phony. But perhaps he figures the voters will understand him as a political amphibian who will do what he needs to for the nomination, and then shed the protective coloring of his conservative persona as a tadpole sheds its tail and go on to be a more electable nominee in his truer persona. Perhaps he is counting on the voters to see through the imagemaking and discount for it.

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