Who Cares Who Sits Behind Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump?

“Optics”: the flimsiest basis for a media-driven scandal.

A man identified as Seddique Mateen, whose son shot and killed 49 people and injured 53 others inside the Pulse nightclub in June, sits with supporters at a rally for Democratic Presidential nominee Hillary Clinton at the Osceola Heritage Park in Kissimmee, Florida on August 8, 2016.
Seddique Mateen, whose son killed 49 people in Orlando’s Pulse nightclub, at a rally for Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton in Kissimmee, Florida, on Aug. 8, 2016.

Gregg Newton/Getty Images

America owes a debt of gratitude on this day to disgraced former Rep. Mark Foley, the diddler. By showing his face at Donald Trump’s Florida rally Wednesday night and sitting in the same camera shot as the candidate, he canceled out the story about Seddique Mateen, father of Orlando shooter Omar Mateen, who on Monday appeared just above Hillary Clinton’s left shoulder during the broadcast of a rally. Now that both Trump and Clinton have had unsavories sitting behind them at recent rallies, they’re both tainted by the same nonstory, and both might now be loath to weaponize the other’s nontransgression. It would be a minor victory in this intensely stupid election if we were at least to rid ourselves of the “controversial person is in the same camera shot as a candidate, shame on the candidate” genre of nongaffe.

There are stories to be had regarding Mateen at Clinton’s rally or Foley at Trump’s. After his son’s shooting rampage, Seddique Mateen—who did not countenance his son’s shooting, for the record!—earned a measure of notoriety with some controversial statements about gay people and the Taliban. Why does he support Hillary Clinton, one wonders. And Foley, of course, is the Republican who resigned in 2006, after it emerged he’d sent sexual emails and messages to teenage congressional pages. Why does he support Donald Trump, one wonders.

As far as the campaigns go, it’s worth asking them if they invited these people, intentionally placed them where they were knowing who they were, and if they disavow their support. (The Clinton campaign, for example, eventually disavowed Mateen’s support.)

Then there are the second-order stories. Should Mateen, with feelings still raw over what his son did and how people responded to some of his own controversial comments, show his face at such public events, this soon after the shooting? Is Foley trying to ride the Trump Train as some sort of comeback into politics? Those are interesting stories.

But if the campaigns didn’t invite the people, didn’t purposely place them in their choice seats knowing who they were, and didn’t have any meaningful relationship with them, then … wha … whatta we got here? Where’s the scandal to which finite media resources are allocated?

Consider just about every story regarding the Mateen cameo and the Foley photobomb. The words in these stories mattered little. The point was the photo or video footage. Look at the monster’s father sitting there, menacingly, as Hillary Clinton discusses the expansion of some tax credit or another. Look at the pervert just over Trump’s left shoulder. Enhance. Enhance!

The most honest headline of this fracas was Twitchy’s on Wednesday night, which noted that Foley sitting in the same camera shot as Trump was “not a good look.” Because that’s what the “scandal,” in either case, is: one of optics. Oh, God.

“Optics” is the flimsiest basis for a media-driven scandal. It is a meta-justification in which media figures say, “This is bad for the candidate because the media will declare it bad for the candidate,” with no apparent self-awareness. It wasn’t a physical-safety threat for Mateen or Foley to be seated so near the candidate, and they weren’t wearing any clothes that might have been offensive to the general public watching on television—a Klan hood or something like that. These are figures who have done some bad things in their past but remain free citizens, and the campaigns had the audacity not to throw them out of camera shots and onto the curb.

This is the equivalent of criticizing candidates for having a few hairs out of place or for wearing white after Labor Day. It’s the sort of thing that campaigns get paranoid about only because they know the press might make an idiot fuss over them. That alone shouldn’t give the media license to make an idiot fuss over them. It can be funny when campaigns, so diligent and anal-retentive about the stagecraft of their public events, err in some way or another, and in this instance it’s certainly funny that Foley was discovered just as Trump was trashing Clinton for allowing Mateen in. It doesn’t mean that this connotes scandal. If the father of a terrorist sits behind Clinton and gets his face on the teevee, it’s still a stretch to deduce that Clinton supports terrorism. And Trump does not condone flirting with underage boys because Foley attended one of his rallies and landed a prime seat.

It’s not like we don’t have plenty of other genuinely scandalous material to work with this year.

Read more Slate coverage of the 2016 campaign.