5. John Kerry Dons a Bunny Suit
In July 2004, one of Sen. John Kerry’s presidential campaign stops took him to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. While there, Kerry donned a blue anti-contamination suit while touring the inside of the Space Shuttle Discovery. The photo of Kerry emerging from the craft, clad head to toe in what NASA technicians have dubbed a “bunny suit,” was printed in many major newspapers and was widely ridiculed. The Boston Herald posed the question, “Who was the advance man who approved this get-up?” Kerry campaign operatives said that the photos were “leaked” to the media. Others weren’t so sure. A NASA spokesman told Fox News that the Kerry campaign reviewed the photos before they were posted on the agency’s website. Incredibly, the aftermath of the visit turned even worse when it was later determined the visit violated the federal Hatch Act, which prohibits electioneering using federal resources.
4. President Bush Reads Pet Goat Book
This might be a low blow, putting the former president on this list for his initial reaction to an unprecedented national crisis. But as far as photo ops go, President George W. Bush’s visit to a Sarasota, Florida, elementary school on Sept. 11, 2001 did not go as planned, and ultimately cast the president in a bad light. Bush visited a second-grade class at Emma Booker Elementary School to tout his education policy, and as he sat through a reading of The Pet Goat with students, White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card stepped forward to whisper some chilling words in the president’s ear: “A second plane hit the second tower. America is under attack.” After receiving the news, Bush sat for nearly seven more minutes, listening to the students read. Finally, he excused himself, and headed to a nearby room, where he watched video of the World Trade Center attacks. He then addressed the nation. After the shock of the day passed, the president’s critics pointed to the scene as evidence of indecisiveness and poor leadership in a crisis. Even some of Bush’s supporters wondered, “What was he thinking during those seven long minutes?” Almost 10 years would pass before Bush fully explained his actions — or inaction — in the classroom that morning. In 2011, he told the National Geographic Channel, "I made the decision not to jump up immediately and leave the classroom. I didn't want to rattle the kids. I wanted to project a sense of calm. I had been in enough crises to know that the first thing a leader has to do is to project calm."
3. President Obama Visits Solyndra
In May 2010, President Barack Obama visited a little-known solar-power manufacturing company in California known as Solyndra. The president toured the plant, then made a speech touting Solyndra as a shining example of a company producing the environmentally sound “green jobs” he had promised in his campaign, and in the passage of a $787 billion stimulus package in 2009. The government had also guaranteed a loan for $535 million to the company. This routine photo op might have been forgotten forever, but Obama wasn’t that lucky. In August 2011, Solyndra announced its intentions to file for bankruptcy, and laid off more than 1,000 workers. TV networks replayed sound bites from the president’s speech at the plant and late-night talk show hosts had a field day with the event. The news couldn’t have come at a worse time for President Obama, as he pitched a new economic stimulus plan to Congress and the American public.
2. President Bush: Mission Accomplished
On May 1, 2003, President George W. Bush landed on the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln, sparking controversy even before the arresting wire stopped his jet. That very day, critics denounced the president’s decision to land on the carrier in a military jet, and not a helicopter, as a publicity stunt. Bush could have shrugged off that criticism, but it got worse. After landing, he gave a speech announcing the end of major combat operations in Iraq. Behind Bush, hanging from the aircraft carrier’s superstructure, a banner proclaimed “Mission Accomplished.” Those words would come to haunt Bush’s presidency in the coming months and even years as the death toll mounted in Iraq. The White House engaged in a furious battle to distance itself from the “Mission Accomplished” message, claiming the Navy had produced the banner and it only signified the completion of the aircraft carrier’s lengthy mission (the longest deployment for a carrier since the Vietnam War). Eventually, White House sources revealed they had produced the banner. Even White House aides came to regret the incident. “I wish the banner was not up there,” top Bush aide Karl Rove told The Columbus (Ohio) Dispatch almost a year later. Bush today has his own regrets, as he notes in the accompanying video.
1. Presidential Contender Dukakis Tanks in Appearance
This was the Custer’s Last Stand of political photo ops gone way, way wrong. Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis had several black marks on his record in his 1988 bid for the presidency against sitting Vice President George H.W. Bush. Public opinion polls found potential voters believed Dukakis was soft on crime, and also doubted his ability to be a strong military leader given his votes against many defense initiatives. To boost his image as a defense-minded politician, Dukakis visited a General Dynamics plant in Michigan. The highlight of the visit featured Dukakis riding around in an M1 Abrams tank, with his body sticking out of the turret. The result was political disaster. Republican PR gurus spun the event to make a mockery of the governor’s tank ride, and the video was even featured in a prominent ad for Bush. Dukakis lost in a landslide election. In 2008, Dukakis told USNews.com he didn’t think the tank ride cost him the election. “Now, should I have been in the tank? Probably not, in retrospect. But these days 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 [as Bush did as president].’ But, you know, things happen.”