Republican vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan and his wife Janna wash pots at St. Vincent DePaul dining hall, Saturday, October 13, 2012 in Youngstown, Ohio.
In case you haven't heard the story, the other day Paul Ryan's team thought it would be a good idea to show his compassionate side, so they had him show up at a soup kitchen in Youngstown, Ohio to help out. The only problem was that lunch had already been served, the patrons were all gone, and everything had been cleaned up. Undeterred, Ryan and his wife donned aprons and proceeded to wash pots for the cameras, despite the fact that the pots they were washing appeared to have already been washed. The head of the charity that runs the soup kitchen was a bit perturbed about the whole thing, saying later, "Had they asked for permission, it wouldn't have been granted. … But I certainly wouldn't have let him wash clean pans, and then take a picture."
Yes, this came in for plenty of ridicule. But let me rise to Ryan's defense. The fact that the pots did not actually need washing doesn't make this much more phony than the typical candidate photo op, where the candidate pretends to be "helping" for a few minutes but actually does little but create trouble for everyone; as they say on "Free to Be You And Me," some kind of help is the kind of help we all can do without. Everything candidates do, particularly this close to an election, is manufactured and artificial, undertaken only for the purpose of being photographed and written about. If tomorrow Paul Ryan goes to paint a Habitat for Humanity house or deliver Meals on Wheels, it won't be any more genuine. And the truth is, by coming when nobody was there, he did that soup kitchen a favor.
Imagine what would have happened if Ryan and his entourage of aides and press had blown in during lunch service. They would have gotten in everybody's way. People trying to serve food would have been jostled by photographers trying to get a good shot, Ryan would have slowed down the line because he didn't actually know how they do things there, patrons would have been pestered by reporters they didn't want to talk to, and the whole thing would have been a big mess that helped no one but the Romney campaign. The little Potemkin volunteerism he actually undertook was far less disruptive.
These kinds of photo-ops are almost always awkward. The candidate gamely pretends he's just meetin' folks, oblivious to the clicking cameras, chattering reporters, and scuttling staff. The people at whatever venue it's taking place look shellshocked, like they've been overrun by an invading army, the 82nd Political Division. The irony is that these events, which are staged and artificial down to the last nanosecond, are meant to demonstrate the candidate's "authenticity."
So perhaps candidate should only undertake these kinds of photo-ops when there are no actual people around. Then they'd really be showing how compassionate they are.