It is widely regarded as the worst photo op in the history of presidential campaigning: The 1988 video of Gov. Michael Dukakis, sporting an oversize helmet and an entirely misplaced grin while riding in a tank. Instead of making him look tough—the clear intention—it made the candidate look weak and out of his depth. How any semi-competent staff could have allowed such a thing to happen has long been a mystery. Mr. Dukakis himself still refuses to talk about it.
If you have ever wanted to get to the bottom of how exactly Dukakis was flattened by that tank in Flint, Mich., Josh King's "Off Script: An Advance Man's Guide to White House Stage craft, Campaign Spectacle, and Political Suicide" is the book for you. Mr. King was a staffer on the Dukakis campaign, and he's a career "advance man"—the guy in charge of planning and setting up political events—having done the job for presidential candidates including Bob Kerrey and Bill Clinton. Mr. King delves deeply into Mr. Dukakis's disastrous ride—he spends more than 100 pages on the incident—and he uses it as a launchpad to discuss the evolution of modern campaign stagecraft and our current "Age of Optics." (One rule the 1988 fiasco cemented: Never put headgear on a candidate.)
In the late 1980s, advance men had a surprising level of autonomy, going out into the field to create ads and photo ops largely on their own. Before social media, campaigns had far more ability to control where images of candidates would appear and which images would be seen by the public. Advance men were in charge of crafting these images on the ground.
The particular advance man in charge of the tank fiasco was a 23-year-old staffer named Matt Bennett. Mr. Dukakis had been getting hammered by Bush for being soft on defense. So the officials at campaign headquarters—following the advice of Michigan Sen. Carl Levin—argued over and eventually settled on the idea of a tank shot in order to show Mr. Dukakis as pro-defense. To Mr. Bennett, the instruction came down as law: "Boston had ordered Bennett to get Dukakis in the tank."
Despite misgivings, Mr. Bennett made it happen. And the requirement for a visitor to get a tank ride was wearing the now legendary helmet. "Campaign policy advisers and speechwriters can have vivid imaginations around a conference table, but it always takes an advance person to carry them out or become the scapegoat when plans veer off script," Mr. King writes. It's no surprise, then, that Mr. Bennett is remembered as overseeing the worst political snafu in modern American history.
Once Mr. King is finished with the Dukakis story, he moves on to much shorter treatments of disastrous presidential or campaign events, such as George H.W. Bush and the supermarket scanner, George W. Bush and the "Mission Accomplished" banner, and John Kerry's windsurfing, which the Bush team used to illustrate his "flip-flopping" in a famous ad. Mark McKinnon, a George W. Bush adviser, tells Mr. King that the footage "was like a flashback to Dukakis . . . it was the gift that just kept on giving. And we ran the hell out of that ad, way more than you would a normal ad."
The author is knowledgeable about these infamous incidents, but lacks the inside knowledge he had of the Dukakis campaign. Still, he does apply lessons from the 1988 snafu to these other debacles. One of the most valuable lessons he shares is that photo ops are most damaging when they confirm pre-existing notions of a candidate's weaknesses.
Hillary Clinton's recent inability to swipe a MetroCard to get on the New York City subway hit a nerve because it built on the narrative of her as someone completely out of touch with everyday Americans. In contrast to the Dukakis incident, which took some time to capture the nation's attention, Mrs. Clinton's subway fumble rocketed around the world immediately via social media; 48 hours after it happened, it was featured on "Saturday Night Live." Somewhere, the advance staffer in charge of the shot is probably cringing.
Mr. Troy, a former presidential aide, is the author of "What Jefferson Read, Ike Watched, and Obama Tweeted: 200 Years of Popular Culture in the White House."