Why Rick Perry Wore Glasses

Written by Jakob Miller

This is former Texas Governor Rick Perry. He was in the 2016 presidential race, but only briefly. If you think back to the 2012 election, however, you almost certainly remember him for this (much to Mr. Perry’s annoyance):

His opponents had a field day with that clip, and the image of Perry as “unprepared” or “unintelligent” was fixed in the public mind. More than a few political pundits blamed that moment on the Michigan stage for the death of Perry’s campaign.

So, when Mr. Perry decided to throw his hat into the rather crowded 2016 ring, he did so with a plan. A strategy. A way to shake off the images that still dogged him from the past campaign, and ensure that this time he’d be taken seriously.

He bought a pair of glasses.

Rick Perry in Glasses
Photo by Kent Williams. (CC BY 2.0)

Now, you might, at this point, be amused at the transparency of this attempt1 but it’s unlikely that you’ve given it anymore thought than that. So step back a moment and consider.

A very competent2 and powerful person, while preparing to mount a serious effort to become one of the most powerful people in the world, decided to spend time and effort on a fashion accessory to counteract the effects of a flubbed line on a cable show four years ago.

The fact is, Perry’s decision was the right call. We can break down the voting decisions the public makes fairly easily. Once you get past things like political parties and the current crop of hot-button issues, you have what William Jacoby3 euphemistically calls `personal evaluations’. In other words, once you get past the signposts and the substance, people start judging the candidates based on how they feel about them. That’s why, if you want to be president, it’s very important that you be tall and good-looking.4

And don’t dismiss all this as silly nonsense, either. Sure, picking `the leader of the free world’ based on height and hairdo might seem like a bad idea. But if you’re the average American voter, you’re not that politically sophisticated or well-informed. Asking someone like that to make a voting decision based on complicated policy issues seems unfair and unworkable: how can we expect Joe Average to adjudicate between competing foreign policy approaches to the Middle East based on the campaign ads he happened to see?

So the idea of picking a candidate based on personality traits isn’t that bad of an idea. After all, you’re only picking a party or an issue platform secondhand — what you’re really picking in an election, first and foremost, is a person. People have far more first-hand experience judging people’s personalities than they do evaluating issue platforms, and information about the candidates’ personalities is cheap.

But therein lies the rub. All that information is so cheap because there are multiple interested parties out there desperately competing to shape the public’s mind.

The media, for example, is in the business of glueing eyeballs to screens. So the events that make it to the public are the ones that are most “newsworthy”. That’s why celebrity endorsements are valuable, why the news reports campaigns the way they do horse races, and why you’ll see every insult the campaigners exchange but never hear them going over the fine print of their economic proposals.That’s why the story of the first President Bush not knowing how to use a supermarket scanner spread, despite the fact that it never actually happened. As one journalist said, it was just too good not to be true.

And don’t forget the opposition, either. Every presidential candidate has teams dedicated to twisting the public’s perception of them. Perry’s gaffe would likely have been quickly forgotten if his opponents hadn’t made sure that it was repeated.

The most famous example of this might be Dukakis and the tank:

Fun fact: Those braking noises you heard? Listen to them again.

Tanks don’t even make those noises! Those were dubbed in!

So, in self-defense, candidates employ their own image teams. These image managers are the ones who make sure that campaign supporters don’t wear ties when their candidate is trying to look down to earth. They agonize over every word of every speech — not always what it means, but how it sounds. They ensure that the candidate’s backdrop is microprinted with their slogans — if Joe Average is only going to get that one image of the president, then it had better be a good one.5 And, of course, sometimes they put their candidate in eyeglasses.

The only reason we all noticed Perry’s attempt was that it was slightly more obvious than most. But the next time you catch yourself having feelings about this candidate or that, remember that every image you have of them is the result of a three-way (candidate, opposition and media) war between desperate teams of professionals.

And if we all kept that in mind, then maybe they wouldn’t have to wear glasses.


1. Officially, the glasses were for medical reasons.
2. You don’t get to elected office in this country without either being smart or having people to be smart for you. Debate notwithstanding.
3. The Oxford Handbook of American Elections and Political Behavior.
4. Height, Appearance.
5. A journalist once put out a TV segment critical of Ronald Reagan: negative narration over stock footage of the president. She was surprised, therefore, to get a thank-you call from Reagan’s image team. The pictures she used, you see, had looked great — and as far as they were concerned, that was all that mattered.

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