13 photos that threatened to derail political careers — from Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to presidential candidate Gary Hart

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
REUTERS/Gary Cameron

  • In September 2019, several photos and a video of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in black face have surfaced, bringing him under intense scrutiny as he campaigns for re-election.
  • Photos have also ended careers for former US politicians Al Franken, Chris Lee, and Anthony Weiner.
  • The wrong photo has also torpedoed campaigns for political office, including US presidential candidates Gary Hart, Michael Dukakis, and John Kerry.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Politics is a cutthroat profession. One bad photo and it’s all over.

In September, photos and a video of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau dressed up in blackface on different occasions surfaced. He’s apologized. But as he campaigns for a second term as prime minister in next month’s election, the photos could have lasting repercussions.

Trudeau isn’t the only one to face criticism for controversial photos. American politicians Al Franken, Chris Lee, Anthony Weiner, Gary Hart, Michael Dukakis, John Kerry, and Krystal Ball have all dealt with the fall-out from photos.

Hiding such a photo could make a big difference, too. The three images of Trudeau in blackface only emerged near the end of his first term. And a photo of Barack Obama with notorious antisemite and homophobe Louis Farrakhan didn’t come to light until 2018, after Obama had already served two terms as president.

There’s also former British Labour Party leader Ed Miliband who has to live with becoming a bacon sandwich-chewing meme.

Here are 13 photos that have – or could have – derailed political careers.

Photos of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in blackface emerged in 2019, as he sought a second term as prime minister.

This photo of Justin Trudeau in blackface was published in the West Point Grey Academy newsletter in April 2001.
Wayback Machine/West Point Grey Academy

The photo was taken in 2001 when Trudeau was 29 and working as a teacher in Vancouver. He was dressed up as Aladdin at an “Arabian Nights” themed party.

When Trudeau apologized he said he hadn’t thought it was racist at the time, but he sees it as racist now, and he’s deeply sorry. While apologizing he also admitted that he’d dressed up in blackface at high school to perform a Jamaican song called “Day-O.”

Within days, another photo and a video emerged of Trudeau in blackface. The video, from the early 1990s, shows Trudeau flapping his arms about and sticking his tongue out.

Justin Trudeau wearing blackface in an old video obtained by the Global News, a Canadian outlet
Screenshot via Global News Canada

Jean-Marc Leger, chief executive of a polling company in Montreal, told the New York Times that Trudeau’s blackface photos and video had shattered his carefully crafted image, and made his authenticity questionable.

While Leger thought Trudeau could still get re-elected, Nik Nanos, another polling firm founder, said it was the worst news a political party could get during a campaign.

Taken together, the images tarnished Trudeau’s reputation as an advocate for minority groups and threatens to ruin his chances at reelection in October.

In 2019, Gov. Ralph Northam admitted to dressing up in blackface after a photo surfaced from his medical school yearbook, then a day later he said it wasn’t him.

Virginia Governor Ralph Northam.
Alex Edelman/Getty Images

In May, Northam admitted that he had dressed up as a slave in high school, which was shown in a photo found in his 1984 yearbook.

A day after the apology, he said that it wasn’t him, but continued to disavow the photo a “disgusting, offensive, and racist.” He said he’d only admitted it was him in the first place, because he wasn’t certain it wasn’t him. But he had, however, indeed dressed up in blackface when he went as Michael Jackson to a dance contest in the 1980s.

After the back and forth, law firm McGuireWoods undertook a three month investigation and put out a 55-page report, but it still wasn’t clear whether it was Northam. The report did say that Northam was “slender in college,” and the person’s legs in the picture were much thicker. While the picture was on his yearbook page, that could have been a mistake.

Northam was called on to step down, by both his peers and presidential candidates, but he refused. He’s still the governor of Virginia.

In 2018, a photo was released of former President Barack Obama and controversial Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan from 2005.

The photo was taken in 2005 at a Congressional Black Caucus meeting. But due to the caucus quickly reaching out to the photographer, it was kept from being made public for 13 years.

The photo, had it been released, could have had repercussions for Obama because Farrakhan is a controversial figure for anti-Semitic, and anti-homosexual comments he’s made.

Dr. Shayla Nunnally, National Conference of Black Political Scientists president, said the photo would have made a difference to Obama’s election chances. “I do believe that it would have had a very, very negative affect in that given moment as far as the candidacy of candidate Obama at that time,” she said.

In 2017, former comedian Al Franken resigned from the senate after a photo emerged of him pretending to grope comedian Leeann Tweeden’s breasts in 2006.

Al Franken and Leeann Tweeden.
Today / Youtube

Franken and Tweeden had been working as comedians on a United Service Organizations’ tour at the time the photo was taken. Tweeden said it had been taken without her consent and she felt embarrassed and violated. She also said Franken kissed her against her will.

After Tweeden went public, seven more people accused Franken of misconduct, saying he had touched or kissed them inappropriately. In the end, Franken resigned after 35 Democrat senators called for him to step down.

In 2019, The New Yorker published a 12,000-word piece that took a closer look at the accusations and questioning some of the accusers’ credibility. Franken said he regretted resigning and signaled he may attempt a political comeback.

A photo of former Britain Labour Party leader Ed Miliband chewing a bacon sandwich in 2014 was the beginning of his political downfall.

Ed Miliband eats a bacon sandwich.

In 2014, the day before Britain’s local elections, Ed Miliband sat down for a bacon sandwich, with aides and photographers in tow.

What was meant to be a simple breakfast became a struggle between Miliband and the chewy bacon. Jeremy Selwyn, a photographer for the London Evening Standard, took photos of the awkward struggle before Miliband’s aides could take the sandwich away from him.

London Evening Standard’s political editor Joe Murphy said the bacon sandwich was a status symbol, the food for the working class. The photo of Miliband’s struggle went viral and it started to become part of his identity.

The day before Miliband lost the election the Sun published the photo on its front page with a headline, “This is the pig’s ear Ed made of a helpless sarnie. In 48 hours he could be doing the same to Britain. Save our bacon.”

In 2017, he told The Guardian his one regret was the bacon sandwich.

In 2011, former Rep. Anthony Weiner resigned after he accidentally posted a photo of his crotch on twitter, although he didn’t admit it right away.

Former Congressman Anthony Weiner.
Anthony DelMundo / NY Daily News / Getty

In 2011, Weiner posted a photo of a man in his underwear to his Twitter account.

At first, Weiner said he’d been hacked. A month later, he admitted he’d lied about the photo and had been having six online relationships with women – while he was married. The scandal was called “Weinergate.”

Weiner did not go easily. He steadfastly said he wouldn’t resign and would work on his problems. But when more photos of him partially undressed were published, and President Barack Obama said if it was him, he’d resign, Weiner finally did resign from Congress.

He later ran unsuccessfully to be mayor of New York.

In 2011, former Rep. Chris Lee resigned from politics four hours after a shirtless photo he posted on Craigslist surfaced.

Lee had responded to an advertisement looking for financially and emotionally secure men, saying he was divorced, even though he was married

Within four hours of the photo, showing him shirtless and flexing, being released by the former news website Gawker, Lee had resigned.

“I regret the harm that my actions have caused my family, my staff and my constituents,” he said at the time. “I deeply and sincerely apologize to them all. I have made profound mistakes, and I promise to work as hard as I can to seek their forgiveness.”

In 2010, Democrat nominee Krystal Ball lost a run for congress after photos of her at a party surfaced featuring a reindeer dildo on her then-husband’s nose.

The photos of Krystal Ball and her ex-husband damaged her political campaign at the time, but Ball defiantly wrote that “society has to accept that women of my generation have sexual lives that are going to leak into the public sphere.”
HuffPost Live / Youtube

Ball was 28 years old in 2010, when she ran for Congress in Virginia. Her campaign suffered when Republican bloggers dug up and posted several photos of her with her former husband wearing a reindeer dildo on his face, taken six years earlier.

The photos went viral and Ball became one of the most-searched people on Google. Ball ended up losing the race to Rep. Rob Wittman, but she did fire back in an opinion piece in HuffPost.

“I realized that photos like the ones of me, and ones much racier, would end up coming into the public sphere when women of my generation run for office,” she said. “And I knew that there could be no other answer to the question than this: Society has to accept that women of my generation have sexual lives that are going to leak into the public sphere. Sooner or later, this is a reality that has to be faced, or many young women in my generation will not be able to run for office.”

In 2004, presidential candidate John Kerry wanted to evoke exploration and science in his campaign, but he was instead compared to a sperm character in a Woody Allen film.

In 2004, John Kerry visited the Kennedy Space Center as part of his presidential campaign. At one point, Kerry was separated from his aides, and he was suited up in baby blue sterile coveralls called a “bunny suit.” NASA photographers took a photo of him and released them before Kerry’s team had a chance to veto it.

The photo ended up on the front page of the Washington Times, Daily News, and the New York Post, which had the headline, “Boston, we have a problem.”

A day later Kerry’s campaign accused NASA of releasing an embarrassing photo, saying it was a “dirty trick.” The photo was compared to Michael Dukakis’ tank photograph.

Kerry’s image took another hit when he released a photo of him windsurfing in Nantucket that was pounced upon by Republicans and turned into a mocking commercial.

Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry windsurfs on the coast of Nantucket, Massachusetts during a brake of his campaign 30 August 2004.
Hector Mata / AFP / Getty

The commercial harnessed the image of Kerry cutting back and forth on his windsurfer, beginning by questioning which way he would lead and finishing with the line: “John Kerry. Whichever way the wind blows.”

Former President George Bush continued this line of attack, portraying Kerry as someone who kept changing his views, while Bush said he stuck to his beliefs. These two photos undoubtedly did not help Kerry in his race to become president, which he lost in 2004.

In 1988, Democratic presidential candidate Michael Dukakis rode around in a tank to create an image of a strong leader. It backfired.

Michael Dukakis was running against former President George H. Bush, and in comparison to Bush he was seen as being weak on military matters. To remedy that, he seized a photo opportunity of him being driven around in a tank.

In the infamous photo, he’s grinning beneath a large helmet. The photo didn’t improve his image. Instead, Bush’s campaign ended up using the footage in a commercial to mock Dukakis.

Bush went onto win that election. While Dukaki’s political error went onto become a political warning, where aides would tell their bosses not to have a “Dukakis in the tank moment.” Wall Street Journal called it “the worst photo op in the history of presidential campaigning.

In 2019, President Trump brought it up when he said he wanted to hop into a tank himself, but he stopped after remembering Dukakis.

In 1987, Democrat candidate Gary Hart had to withdraw from the presidential race, after he was accused of adultery and a photo emerged of him and a 29-year-old woman named Donna Rice on a boat called “Monkey Business.”

American politician Gary Hart sits on a dock with Donna Rice on his lap, 1987.
National Enquirer / Getty

Gary Hart had been accused of “womanizing” for a while, but things came to a head when the Miami Herald staked out his house in Washington one evening and saw Donna Rice go in but not come out.

A media storm ensued. At first, Hart held out against the accusations, but once the photo of him with Rice on his lap was released, which had been taken before the stakeout, he dropped out of the presidential race.

Here’s his withdrawal speech.