Candidates Who Know How to Be Led

Media advisers will always seek to depict candidates as regular, likable folks who see eye to eye with their fellow citizens, as individuals whose authority has not gone straight to their heads.

Shaul Mofaz was photographed barefoot at home. As far as we can tell from the photograph, he's not foot model material, but his public relations advisers instructed him to peel off his serious, humorless persona - and the transportation minister obliged. The reporter and the photographer were invited into his home, and Mofaz took off his shoes in order to look like an average guy.

On the other hand, Tzipi Livni went for a photo shoot on the beach, clad in high-top sneakers and sporty clothing. This is how she is connecting with the people. Emerging from his hiding place is her husband, Naftali Shpitzer, who describes how his wife knows how to let her hair down at parties, dancing on tables and playing the drums - boy, look how she bangs on those drums.

Even Orit, Mofaz's wife, has been introduced to the public, wrapping her head in a large kerchief because the PR staff told her to for the photo shoot near the Western Wall.

It is poor form to fall for media gimmicks by the spin doctors of the Kadima primary candidates (and the other parties' prime ministerial candidates), especially given that these ploys repeat themselves and target the same audience. Their motives are also transparent, regardless of the candidates, their political parties or political views. Media advisers will always seek to depict them as regular, likable folks who see eye to eye with their fellow citizens, as individuals whose authority has not gone straight to their heads.

When Israel was leaner, Labor leaders who would wear suits and ties in their official capacities would arrive at party conferences and functions in open-collared shirts. They wanted to send a message that clothes do not make the man, in the famous words of Mark Twain. Rather, the politician must wear a costume due to his status. In this day and age, when there are no more party gatherings and when nobody falls for the gimmick of top officials in informal clothes, the spin doctors are instructing their clients to be photographed in slippers, or, even better, barefoot.

And so, with the snap of a shutter, Livni turns from a stern, buttoned-to-the-chin woman to a crowd-pleaser who shakes hands, plants kisses and, most importantly, smiles nonstop. And Avi Dichter, the mysterious Shin Bet leader-cum-public security minister who always looks and sounds goal-oriented, is seen on TV in his bathing suit, and kissing his wife before leaving for work. Oh, how heartwarming and genuine. And Mofaz, who normally projects an angry aloofness, suddenly pats people on the shoulder, seeks contact, even kisses a party activist who organized a rally for him.

And Ehud Barak tops them all. At the behest of his advisers, he puts his marble and crystal-plated estate in the Akirov Towers up for sale.

The average citizen is left to wonder when these candidates are being themselves: dressed down during the election campaigns, or acting like the people we recognize during the rest of the year. This is not a "play dumb" question, because the spin strategy whereby politicians dance to the tune of their image handlers is not simply a technical matter. Rather, it is a reflection of Israel's political culture. The voter does not know what the candidates really believe, what their plan of action is, what solutions they offer for the nation's problems. Since the contenders change their personas in the blink of an eye, they can also change their political opinions and obligations.

The elections are about the leadership of the state. The candidates ask for the public's confidence in their ability to lead and direct. As of this moment, they are proving their ability to be led - by spin doctors. None of the candidates appear to be capable of standing up for their positions, or of refusing to take part in the media manipulation dictated by image coaches, or of insisting on preserving an original identity. All of them blindly accept the conventional wisdom that you can mock the public, pull the wool over its eyes, and distract it with cheap tricks.

This assumption crumbles against the test of reality. The public is losing faith in its elected officials because it senses they are a hollow shell with no substance, and continue to follow the spin doctors' orders even after the elections. Even in this ratings-conscious era, at least some of the electorate still yearns for a true leader, a person with an inner truth, integrity, and the ability to swim against the tide. Politicians who pose for the cameras and engage in populism quickly lose their standing, but this predictable result is hidden from their view by their image consultants.