Tevi Troy highlights for Wall Street Journal readers a new book about an important — but often underappreciated — role in presidential campaigns.

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. …

… 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.