Just 6 percent of Americans went hunting in 2011, according to the latest numbers from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. And according to the 2014 General Social Survey, just 15 percent of adults live in households where they or their spouse were hunters, down from a high of 32 percent in 1977. Despite its gun-friendly reputation, contemporary America is not exactly a nation of hunters.
But you’d never know that from the country’s political class, which loves to dress up in camouflage and hoist weapons for the cameras. Take the pheasant hunt hosted by Iowa congressman Steve King earlier this month in Akron, Iowa. King’s outing was no ordinary shooting excursion. Over the course of the weekend he was accompanied by about 50 hunters, including four presidential candidates and about a dozen members of the media. Mike Huckabee, who said he was on his third-ever pheasant hunt, downed a bird with his first shot. “He’s as dead as Elvis,” the former Arkansas governor quipped. Soon afterward, the Huckabee campaign released a video of their candidate making the kill.
In downing a bird for the cameras, Huckabee was participating not just in the age-old tradition of humans killing animals for food, but in a somewhat newer tradition of politicians hunting for publicity. We’ve seen President Obama shooting skeet, Sarah Palin supporting aerial wolf hunting, and then-vice-presidential candidate Paul Ryan giving an interview to Deer & Deer Hunting magazine about his passion for (take a guess) deer hunting. King’s annual hunt itself has become its own political set piece. In 2011, he hosted primary candidates Rick Perry and Rick Santorum.
Of course, politicians have been hunting since long before there were cameras. But even in the early years of the republic, some observers seemed eager to read meaning into hunting as a pastime. George Washington was said to have gone fox hunting up to three times a week before the Revolutionary War, for example. Writing decades after Washington’s death, his nephew framed the president’s hobby as emblematic of his character:
None rode more gallantly in the chase, nor with voice more cheerily awakened echo in the woodland, than he who was afterwards destined, by voice and example, to cheer his countrymen in their glorious struggle for independence and empire. ... He rode, as he did everything else, with ease, elegance, and with power. The vicious propensities of horses were of no moment to this skilful and daring rider!
The president best known for his interest in hunting remains Teddy Roosevelt, who was well known for his prowess as a sportsman; years before he took the presidency, he wrote a book called Hunting Trips of a Ranchman. Grover Cleveland, too, wrote a book about fishing and hunting. Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover were passionate fishermen, Dwight Eisenhower was an avid fisher and hunter, and Harry Truman went deer hunting with his fellow senators. Through much of the 20th century, it would be hard to find a president who wasn’t at least a little interested in hunting.
That only makes sense, because for most of American history, hunting was a mainstream pursuit. Today, despite its dwindling popularity, the hobby retains its frisson of all-American masculinity, self-sufficiency, and rural credibility. A man with a gun in the woods is still a powerful symbol. Democrats and Republicans are both keen to be photographed hunting these days, but the dwindling group of American hunters is an especially important constituency for the GOP: Hunters are overwhelmingly male and white.
So perhaps it’s understandable that hunting gear remains a powerful weapon in the politician’s arsenal of props. NPR observed in 2010 that guns were even starting to play a notable role in political ads, with candidates bearing assault rifles, pistols, and more.
But hunting for the cameras can go poorly for candidates who don’t seem at home in camouflage. In 2004, John Kerry rather disastrously attempted to win over rural voters with an awkward goose-hunting trip in the swing state of Ohio. “I understand he bought a new camouflage jacket for the occasion, which did make me wonder how regularly he does go goose hunting,” Vice President Cheney sneered at the time, calling Kerry’s hunting ensemble an “October disguise.” When Mitt Romney claimed in 2007 to have been a lifelong hunter, and then clarified that he was a “rodent and rabbit hunter, small varmints, if you will,” it was just as painful.
Gaffes aren’t even the greatest hazards facing politicians who hunt. The Political Graveyard, a website, has compiled a remarkable list of politicians who have been killed while hunting or fishing. They include a representative from Texas who shot himself in the foot and never recovered, a New York state assemblyman who shot himself while cleaning his shotgun, and a Wisconsin senator who was accidentally shot in the back by his brother during a duck-hunting expedition.
Today, with so many political hunting expeditions staged to the hilt, the risks of injury are low. But that doesn’t mean they’re nil. At the hunt with Steve King in Iowa, Ted Cruz was caught on video with his gun’s muzzle pointed at a group of people, violating basic rules of gun safety. “He’s either a poser who doesn’t really hunt, or just a blindingly dangerous nincompoop,” one lifetime NRA member told Gizmodo. In election season, Washington has plenty of both.