Rule number one for presidential candidates in this media age: Do not put anything on your head in the presence of news cameras.
Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis was done in during his 1988 campaign by images of himself riding in a tank and wearing a helmet that reminded many witnesses of Snoopy.
Fellow Massachusetts Democratic Sen. John Kerry was similarly set back in 1994 by a greenish NASA safety suit that made him resemble a smiling Gumby.
President Bush had the foresight after landing grandly on an aircraft carrier to remove his helmet, although not enough foresight to remove the banner behind his head that said "Mission Accomplished."
Those thoughts came to mind when I saw the photo that somebody leaked to the Drudge Report Web site of Illinois Sen. Barack Obama dressed in Somali tribal garb.
At first I thought the photo might be a digitally altered gag shot of Obama's face superimposed on a Somali's body. I was recalling Kerry's 2004 campaign in which photos of the Vietnam War veteran were digitally altered to put him with Jane Fonda at a protest rally.
But, no, the Obama photo records an actual event. Only some of the picture's implications are misleading. The photograph was taken during Obama's 2006 visit to Kenya, his late father's homeland. It shows Obama trying on local garb, including a turban, tunic and walking stick given to him in a rural region of the country.
The Drudge Report claimed that an unnamed staffer of Sen. Hillary Clinton's campaign submitted the photo and complained of a pro-Obama media bias. The Obama campaign suggested that the photograph amounted to fear mongering. Maggie Williams, Clinton's new campaign manager, issued a reply that ridiculed that notion, yet neither confirmed nor denied that the campaign had anything to do with it.
Sure, the photo would be no big deal, if Obama were not running for president. But hardly a day goes by without my receiving some e-mailed lie that claims Obama is a secret Muslim or some other bogus notion intended to smear Obama or his Church of Christ minister in Chicago as somehow un-American, anti-white, threatening or subversive. Politics is largely perceptions. If you can't nail your opponent with the truth, according to ancient wisdom of political dirty tricks, send rumors.
It is a sign of America's progress that Obama is not eliminated from the public's consideration because of his African heritage. Yet, he is vulnerable to other prejudices of our post-Sept. 11 era. His relatively recent arrival in national politics helps us to see him as the agent of change that he wants us to see, but it also makes him more vulnerable to lies and suspicions about his background to those who, despite his Web site and two memoirs, don't take time to learn much about him.
Imagine, for example, what kind of person is still an undecided voter after all of this time and exposure to the campaign. Many undecideds are relying on one positive or negative impression that will tilt the balance in favor of one candidate or the other. For the still-undecided voters, any little impression can have a big impact.
I've been waiting, for example, for some mischievous photo retoucher to try replacing Obama's necktie with a bow tie. The same bow tie that makes MSNBC's Tucker Calson look preppy or columnist George Will look professorial would make Obama look like a son of Louis Farrakhan. That hardly would be a fitting image for a candidate known for transcending race.
Whoever might be responsible for the turban photo's release, it provides a test run for what both Clinton and Obama can expect when one of them finally wins the nomination. Dukakis and Kerry both learned the hard way that they cannot let a false impression fester in public conversations for days or weeks without a strong response.
Candidates like to think the public is too intelligent to be easily fooled. I believe most of us are. But in a close race, it only takes an uninformed minority to tip the balance.