It was a profound embarrassment for the Hillary Clinton campaign. At a rally on Monday in Florida, she found herself in front of the usual backdrop of ardent supporters—including Seddique Mir Mateen, the father of Orlando mass murderer Omar Mateen, who slaughtered 49 persons and wounded 53 others at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando on June 12. On Wednesday night, as Trump denounced Clinton for having Mateen in a place of honor at her rally, seated behind Trump in his human backdrop was somebody else with a past: Mark Foley, a Florida Republican who was forced to resign in disgrace from Congress in 2006 after being caught sending sexually explicit messages to underage male interns.
Foley apparently got his seats because he knew some local pro-Trump organizers. It’s not clear how Mateen talked himself into his prime place, but it’s unlikely that his claims that he was sought out by the Democratic Party are true. But however it happened, let’s go out on a limb and state that whatever their numerous faults and manifest unfitness for high office, it’s not fair to impute the offenses of their backdrop crew to the candidates. Clinton doesn’t support mass murder or the Taliban. Nor is Trump in favor of politicians trying to seduce interns of either sex. The attention given both of these kerfuffles was a waste of time.
But before we place both of these incidents away in a file marked “greatest political advance staff disasters,” maybe we should rethink the whole concept of human backdrops.
The notion of providing a human tableau behind a politician to humanize him is pure political flummery. So is the attempt to use this tactic to demonstrate or at least give the pretense that a diverse population — in terms of gender, race and age — backs the candidate.
It works best when the people given the task of what humorist P.G. Wodehouse once referred to as a “nodder” (a creature that ranked beneath “yes men” in his short story of the same name) really believes in their job. The Obama campaigns in 2008 and 2012 were especially good at recruiting supporters who could be counted on to gaze adoringly at the man promising hope and change. Others have proved less adept at it. In particular, Clinton’s nodders generally seem dutiful rather than enthusiastic. Trump’s are a mixed lot that sometimes leaves one wondering whether those participating in the show would rather be in the audience where they could mix it up with protesters rather than forced to sit still and be on their best behavior.
But the events of the last week have shown that there is as much risk in this tactic as opportunity. Both campaign advance staffs would be derelict in their duty if they were not thoroughly vetting anyone who might get caught in the camera frame with either Clinton or Trump from now on. And if they don’t do it, one imagines that enterprising reporters will do it for them with entirely unpredictable results.
Which leads me to suggest that perhaps campaign funds — and the time of political journalists — might be better spent on something else than casting or investigating extras in a presidential passion play. The best thing that could come out of the Mateen and Foley appearances would be to end the entire phony practice and to force the candidates to meet the public without the supportive reinforcements signaling the audience to cheer or wave signs on cue. With two presidential candidates that are both lying fakes, we’re getting enough artifice from their speeches without the cast of thousands behind them.