Ben Zimmer, NY Times, 2010 - When President Obama responded to the failed Christmas airliner bombing while on vacation in his native state of Hawaii, some Republicans claimed it was “bad optics.” “Hawaii to many Americans seems like a foreign place,” the Republican strategist Kevin Madden told CNN. “And I think those images, the optics, hurt President Obama very badly.”
A month later, the shoe was on the other foot when the Republican National Committee held its winter meeting in, yes, Hawaii. Then it was the party’s chairman, Michael Steele, who had to answer questions about the “optics” of gathering the party faithful at a beachfront resort in Waikiki.
How did optics achieve buzzword status in American politics? In his final On Language column last September, William Safire noted the trend: “ ‘Optics’ is hot, rivaling content.” When politicians fret about the public perception of a decision more than the substance of the decision itself, we’re living in a world of optics. Of course, elected officials have worried about outward appearances since time immemorial, but optics puts a new spin on things, giving a scientific-sounding gloss to P.R. and image-making.