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12 Political Photo Op Flops From Paul Ryan in a Soup Kitchen to Dukakis in a Tank (Photos)

Paul Ryan was slammed for staging a photo op at a soup kitchen. See other political photo op disasters.

Getty Images (top left); AP Photo (3)

What was supposed to be a charming photo op of Paul Ryan and his family at an Ohio soup kitchen turned ugly when the director of the charity that runs the soup kitchen insisted that the vice-presidential candidate barged in without permission and proceeded to wash clean dishes. But Ryan staffers shouldn’t get too depressed over the bad PR—it’s only the latest in a long line of political photo op disasters. From Sarah Palin’s turkey pardoning while one was slaughtered right behind her to George H.W. Bush being caught on camera not knowing how a grocery scanner works, see more pictures that did more harm than good.

Mary Altaffer / AP Photo

1. Paul Ryan ‘Ramrods’ His Way Into Soup Kitchen

Oh Paul, it must have sounded like a good idea. The vice-presidential nominee was criticized Tuesday by a soup kitchen director who said Ryan, his wife, and three children—along with a group of campaign staffers—“ramrodded their way” into the Youngstown, Ohio, facility for a photo op. According to Brian Antal, the head of the Mahoning County St. Vincent de Paul Society that runs the soup kitchen, Ryan and his staffers stopped for only 15 minutes while on their way to the airport. Since the soup kitchen is part of a faith-based organization, their bylaws strictly prohibit any political events. As if this wasn’t enough, Antal said that by the time Ryan and his family arrived, all the food had been served and the hall had been cleaned—and the giant pot that Ryan appears to be scrubbing was actually already clean. Antal, a registered independent who has voted in the Democratic primaries for the past 17 years, said he would have had the same problem if it were Democrats. “Had they asked permission, it wouldn’t have been granted … but I certainly wouldn’t have let him wash clean pans, and then take a picture.” A Ryan campaign source said they followed the usual protocol for impromptu campaign stops: a staffer asked in the morning if they could visit and were granted permission by someone on site—although, apparently, not Antal himself. Let’s just hope this doesn’t turn the Ryan children against charity forever.

Evan Vucci / AP Photo

2. Crouching Mitt

When Mitt Romney agreed to pose for pictures with a group of school children and began to crouch down to their height, he probably thought all political criticism heading his way was momentarily diverted. But one unfortunate crop and vague caption later sent conservative commentators into uproar. The AP, who took the photo, later rephrased the caption and apologized for not showing the picture in its proper context, but the image lives on.


3. Home Alone?

There’s a fine line between a good photo op and an annoyingly staged picture, and British Prime Minister David Cameron learned that lesson the hard way. Donning his Team GB polo shirt and proudly holding his remote control, Cameron sat down just feet away from his television, resting under a portrait of Winston Churchill, to watch Nicola Adams win the boxing gold. Cameron’s PR team tweeted a picture, unleashing a wave of ridicule his way. Even other British politicians joined in; Labour MP Tom Watson tweeted, “I almost feel sorry for you sitting there all alone in your new T-shirt with just you and the photographer.”

KARE-TV / AP Photo

4. Turkey Terror

Former Alaska governor Sarah Palin has long been considered an easy target for the media, but this botched photo op was almost too easy. After playing her role in the national tradition of pardoning a Thanksgiving turkey, John McCain’s former running mate set in for a casual one-on-one interview—while a turkey was being slaughtered in the background. Most news outlets took to blurring the turkey, but squeamish viewers were still warned to look away.

Jason Reed, Reuters / Landov

5. Ogling?

President Barack Obama was almost embroiled in a scandal of his own back in 2009—“Bootygate,” it was termed on—after it appeared he and French President Nicholas Sarkozy seemed to sneak a peak at the backside of Mayara Tavares. The New York Post published the picture under the headline: “Tail to the Chief,” while the conservative website Drudge Report went with “Second Stimulus Package!” Video of the image shows that the president was probably turning to help a woman behind him, but the evidence acquitting Sarkozy remains inconclusive.

J. Scott Applewhite / AP Photo

6. Unaccomplished

Although the image of then-President Bush declaring “Mission Accomplished” in Iraq aboard a U.S. battleship appeared fairly picturesque at the time, it wasn’t until the ensuing years that the magnitude of this photo flop was fully realized. When Bush gave his speech in 2003, just a month after troops were deployed, the U.S. had recorded 139 deaths and more than 500 wounded. By the time of the war’s official end in 2011, an estimated 5,000 U.S. fatalities had been recorded. Bush later said he wished he hadn’t spoken under the “Mission Accomplished” banner.

NASA / AP Photo

7. Hippity Op

The Kerry campaign was furious at NASA during his doomed 2004 presidential run, accusing the agency of leaking a photo of their candidate emerging from a space capsule grinning and wearing a baby blue “bunny suit.” The media had a field day with what the Democrats called “a dirty trick” from the Republicans, with the New York Post running the image under the headline: “Boston, We Have a Problem.” A NASA spokesperson denied accusations that the photo had been leaked. 

Barry Thumma / AP Photo

8. Checkout Line

George H.W. Bush was constantly battling the perception that he was a wimp and out of touch with the everyday lives of Americans, and when the smooth-talking Bill Clinton emerged as the primary challenger in the 1992 election, his work got all the more daunting. One day Bush decided to visit a supermarket, and seemed encapsulated by the checkout counter. He hovered his hand over the bar scanner and called the technology “amazing” before asking, “This is for checking out?” The only problem: bar scanners had been around since the ’70s, which didn’t exactly enhance Bush’s image as an average guy.

Michael E. Samojeden / AP Photo

9. Snoopy Dukakis

Nearly 20 years after his failed presidential campaign, Michael Dukakis has had plenty of time to rethink his loss. Dukakis, who lost to George H.W. Bush in 1988, said he would have responded more aggressively to the Bush attack ad campaign. While the infamous “Willie Horton” ads were created by the Bush attack team, Dukakis himself posed for one of the other successful attack campaigns lodged against him: a photo op gone horribly wrong at a tank factory. Dukakis, eager to promote his image as being pro-military, posed while riding in a tank—smiling and pointing for the cameras while wearing a helmet. But the photo was immediately mocked by Republicans, and was eventually even featured in Republican attack ads. Many political pundits blame that moment for the loss. But Dukakis himself told U.S. News in 2008 that when “people ask me, ‘did you get here in a tank?’ I always respond by saying, ‘no, and I’ve never thrown up all over the Japanese prime minister.’”


10. Leaked Photo

This alleged photobombing turned out to be too good to be true. At a September Obama speech, Politico tweeted a photo that showed a man in the far right corner appearing to be urinating. The photo, of course, went viral immediately—but a Secret Service spokesman confirmed later the man in the background was one of their personnel and most definitely not peeing. “There is no accuracy to the reporting associated with this photo so far,” said Secret Service spokesman Edwin Donovan.

Mandel Ngan, AFP / Getty Images

11. Say ahh, Obama

Aren’t babies supposed to be good fodder for political campaigns? It didn’t work out so well for President Obama while in Honolulu over Christmas in 2011. “What’s going on, man? How are you doing?” Obama asked 8-month-old Cooper Wail Wagner, according to a press pool report. Obama then lifted the baby away from his parents, Cpt. Greg Wagner, 27, and Meredith Wagner, 25—and then Cooper promptly stuck his fingers in the president’s mouth. As a father himself, the president seemed to be game, telling the baby, “see that big nose and say, ‘I want some of that big nose.’”

AP Photo

12. Remove Wrapper, Then Eat

Future campaigns will always teach candidates how to eat tamales. While visiting the Alamo for a bicentennial celebration in 1976, President Gerald Ford committed what would later be known as the “Great Tamale Incident” when he grabbed the Mexican delicacy from a nearby plate and began eating—without removing the husk. Many in the audience gasped, and a member of the Daughters of the Republic of Texas stopped him from eating anymore. Ford laughed the incident off and then finished off the tamales. Lila Cockrell, then the mayor of San Antonio, said it was “obvious” Ford had never gotten a briefing on how to eat tamales.

Victoria Arocho / AP Photo

13. Flipped Off

Live free or die … for pancakes? Gary Bauer, a little-known Republican presidential contender in the New Hampshire primary in 2000, made an epic flop during a pancake breakfast in Manchester. Bauer flipped a pancake into the air and followed with his eyes and then started backing up to catch it. He teetered back for the pancake and caught the pancake—except he lost balance and fell backward off the podium. Bauer was unhurt, but the griddle was bent. To add insult to (non)injury, Bauer had followed George W. Bush in the pancake flip, who had mastered it perfectly.