Every political campaign relies on visual shorthand and tried-and-true symbolism to help communicate its message. And so, against the backdrop of the retired battleship USS Wisconsin, supporters waited for Mitt Romney to introduce his vice-presidential running mate: U.S. Representative Paul Ryan, 42, the congressman from the aforementioned state.
Television viewers could see a modestly diverse crowd assembled on risers just behind a lectern: an older gentleman in a polo shirt, a young man looking freshly scrubbed, plenty of women from various generations waving American flags and a black man and black woman who were visible from virtually every camera angle.
The campaign needed that “We Are the World” multi-culturalism in the chorus, because the stars of the morning were two look-alike white guys with aggressively groomed hair.
Romney took the stage wearing a formal white shirt, blue tie and no jacket. Conveying the ease of a man wearing a cervical halo, Romney greeted the audience and after brief remarks, and a slip-of-the-tongue that had him referring to Ryan as the next “president” of the United States, the congressman bounded forth.
Ryan wore a dark suit—of the extra-roomy variety—and an open-collared white shirt. A rather large flag pin decorated his jacket lapel. He was dressed in the uniform that President Barack Obama popularized during the 2008 campaign. Obama wore the tieless black suit whenever he was looking to convey authority and gravitas in an informal situation. It was his go-to look for late night talk shows, for instance. Obama accessorized this look with cool, with nonchalance. Ryan prefers the aw-shucks understatement of an earnestly furrowed brow.
Romney, with gray-tinged sideburns and a granite jaw, at age 65 could be Ryan’s father. The younger man, with the geled hair, the widow’s peak and the dimply smile, could be confused with one of the Romney children: Tagg, Craig, Matt, Ben, Josh… and Paul. Just one more bright-eyed boy spilling out of the family station wagon.
Much more will be learned about Ryan as the months progress. A million political pundits will debate whether Ryan’s policy positions, his “Path to Prosperity” budget, his childhood in Janesville, Wisconsin, will help or hinder Romney when voters cast their ballots. They will argue about whether Ryan is as genial a player on Capitol Hill as some observers say. Does he really appeal to folks’ “better angels,” as Romney declared? Is he really a compelling speaker or is the bar just set exceptionally low?
But as a pure visual, the image of the two men on stage in Norfolk, Virginia lacked dazzle or texture. It was a bit like seeing double.
The combination of their matching white shirts and black trousers—plus one jacket and one tie—meant that any hint of personal style was lost in a mish-mash of menswear remnants. Neither man revealed much of a personal affinity for the other, either through words or gestures. And when Ryan introduced his wife and three children, the audience at home—at least those watching on NBC—didn’t even get a glimpse of them. They were somewhere below, behind and out of camera range.
The moment could have benefited from a loose shot of a tow-headed kid making a silly face or flashing a charming grin—an image that would connect something unscripted and personal to Ryan. The moment could have benefitted from anything that would have alerted the curious viewer—the sort of non-political type that’s still saying, ‘Paul who?’—that Romney had not merely plucked a hair from his head, dropped it in a petri dish and cloned himself.
There are a lot of different ways of defining diversity. Race and gender are only the most pronounced. Technically, Romney is a baby boomer and Ryan hails from generation X. Romney grew up the son of a governor. Ryan’s father died when he was a teenager. But on stage Saturday morning, in that moment of campaign symbolism, the two men exuded an unavoidable sameness. Two white guys defined by political expedience, professional uniforms and perfectly pomaded hair.