“I think have proven over the last eight years that I don’t care about political optics – I care about right or wrong.” That’s how a defiant Governor Chris Christie defended his family outing on a New Jersey beach when public beaches were closed because of a legislative stalemate on a state budget.
Political optics isn’t about right or wrong. Political optics about how what you do looks to the outside world. In Christie’s case, lounging on an empty beach didn’t look good.
It doesn’t matter that Christie is near the end of his tenure as governor of New Jersey. It also doesn’t matter that the beach where he and his family lounged is connected to the governor’s residence or that the budget stalemate suddenly broke in time for public beaches to open on the Fourth of July. It simply didn’t look good, and no explanation could change that.
Social media predictably exploded with cutouts of Christie in his beach chair superimposed on famous movie beach scenes and in the Oval Office. It was the visual definition of bad optics.
Use of the term “optics” in connection with politics dates back to the 1970s. The ubiquitous “photo op” is a derivation of optics. The idea of a political photo op is to be shown doing something good or likable such as dedicating a new bridge or eating hot dogs with constituents at a Fourth of July celebration. You might call that good optics.
Bad optics is the opposite. Bad optics happen when a politician, business person or civic leader is captured in a photograph or video doing something that is stupid or unlikable. Like calling supporters of your political opponent “deplorables,” strapping your dog in a cage to the roof of your SUV or, as mayor of New York, being photographed eating pizza with a knife and fork.
Some may ridicule the notion of political optics as nothing more than an attempt to be “politically correct.” The best-known exponent of that view is the guy who tweeted a short video of himself taking down a man whose head was the CNN logo just outside a professional wrestling ring. This guy specializes in mocking political correctness as a way to distract attention and stir up his political base, even though it increasingly alienates almost everyone else.
You don’t have to be a president or governor to generate bad optics. In a former time before smartphones and social media, an event that may have caused a mild reaction by eyewitnesses can turn into a viral sensation that is embarrassing and unrelenting as it spreads through social networks.
There is no fool-proof way to avoid bad optics. But just as photo ops take careful planning to execute successfully, the same amount of care and forethought needs to be exercised to sniff out situations that could turn into bad optics. Politicians have staff to advise them. The rest of us have to depend on coworkers, friends and family members. If you don’t trust your own judgment, which is wise, ask those around you if something will look bad and could dent your reputation.
The late William Safire, a columnist and political speechwriter, deplored the use of the word “optics” in a political context. He and others said symbolism has its place, but so does underlying reality, and the two are not the same thing. True. But here is another reality – people are more likely to see the symbolism of an event than encounter the reality of it. Only foolish people believe symbolism doesn’t matter. When we lay wreaths on the graves of fallen warriors on Memorial Day, we show respect. When the governor of New Jersey takes his family to the beach when other residents are barred from doing the same, he displays disrespect. That is the reality of bad optics.