Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Anatomy of a Photograph

President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden, along with members of the national security team, receive an update on the mission against Osama bin Laden in the Situation Room of the White House, May 1, 2011.

David Brooks and Gail Collins

David Brooks: The other photo I’ve been fascinated by is the one of the president’s security team gathered in the White House Situation Room. The first thing the photo illustrates is that whenever we disagree with an office holder, we should all nonetheless pay them a large dose of respect. Presidents and others make these horrific decisions that could lead to death and suffering for people thousands of miles away, and then they sit passively far removed from the action, hoping that things turn out right.

On a human level I’m struck by the varied emotions etched on people’s faces. I can read nothing on Bob Gates’s face or even Joe Biden’s, whereas Obama, Denis McDonough and John Brennan look tense. Hilary Clinton’s face is the most riveting, a mixture of anxiety, dread and concern. I suspect most people will relate to her expression.

Gail Collins: Did they have to pick the one where Hillary had her hand over her mouth? The secretary of state doesn’t need to prove her toughness, but it would be nice if the definitive photo didn’t show the only woman in the room looking stricken.

David Brooks: The second thing the photo shows is how small the room is. In the movies, executive decisions are made in big, Roman Empire type rooms. But the White House is an early 19th century kind of place. It does all it can to humble the people who work there with its smallness, at least in the work areas.

The posture of the president is fascinating. Instead of occupying the power chair in the center of the table, he is perched on a low chair off the side, hunched over looking tense. If you just looked at this picture, you might think that Joe Biden was president or Bill Daley, who is standing behind looking imposing and grave. You’d think Obama was a midlevel aide.

Gail Collins: The president really did put all his chips on the line. These are the kind of moments we elected him for — we knew from the financial crisis that when all hell breaks loose, he doesn’t lose his cool.

But he’s also lucky. People partly make their own fortunes, but I wonder if he’d have had the confidence to take such a huge gamble if he didn’t believe innately that he’s the kind of guy fortune favors.

Meanwhile, our report says Biden was fingering his rosary beads. Luck is good, but the Blessed Virgin Mary is better.

David Brooks: In the case of Obama’s perch in the Situation Room, I think what happened is this: some sort of communication or technical relay had to be done, so the president got out of his chair and relinquished it to Brig. Gen. Brad Webb, who is the assistant commanding general of the Joint Special Operations Command. The president just slid over to the low chair off to the side, which one of the standers must have relinquished.

Still, I wonder how many White Houses would have been confident enough to release a photo with the president looking so diminutive. I think it speaks well of Obama and the administration that they released this as the iconic image of the decision-making process behind the event.

Gail Collins: They wouldn’t have released it if they hadn’t won. And isn’t it interesting how big a deal this was? Bin Laden wasn’t all that central to the terrorist network any more, but taking him down created a kind of national catharsis. It’s been a really, really long time since we had something to celebrate that didn’t involve a sports team. I’d rather it had been a non-death-related occasion, but we’ll take what we can get.

Jeffrey Goldberg

No, not the soon-to-be-released Bin Laden-shot-in-the-head photo (which could become one of the most viewed photographs in history), but the photo of the President and his advisers in the White House situation room. Why amazing? Because the President seems so small and peripheral to the action. He is hunched down, seated on the margins of the meeting, seemingly trying not to take up space. It appears as if he couldn't even find a place to put his jacket. By contrast, Tom Donilon, the national security adviser, practically bestrides the room like a Colossus (an affable Colossus, if you know him). I was struck, when I saw this photo, that the Bush White House would have ever released a similar photograph. This is not to cast aspersions on Bush, but could you seriously imagine his public relations releasing an image of him leading from behind, as it were?


I was just talking to David Brooks, and he, too, was struck by this photo. He noted that the President most likely had to move seats to see the screen, but he did not move to a central seat, but to a small chair against the wall. The negative interpretation of this, of course, is that the President wasn't running the meeting, but both of us found this impossible to believe. The positive interpretation is that the President is so confident in his power that he is comfortable even in a corner. This speaks well of him, to my mind; a president who kills America's enemies without swagger is better than a swaggerer who doesn't kill America's enemies. (Maybe here I'm casting a few aspersions on Bush.)

David recently posted,
on one of his many blogs, a piece about research conducted by Harvard Business School's Amy Cuddy, who, with colleagues, studied power poses, and how adopting a power pose (in police jargon, a command stance) can actually change a person's mindset. Look at the photo below: No evidence of a Barack Obama power pose there. Just power.

3 comments:

James I said...

An interesting read, but I can't help but think these writers would be more productive thinking about the news rather than about the media.

My reaction to the photo (other than Hilary is NOT the only woman in the room) is the need for our leaders (other than the President) to exercise more.

Big Myk said...

I confess that for a brief moment I wondered if this entry might not be blog-worthy. I thought it was a great photo though -- like a scene right out of the West Wing.

My reaction to the photo was, while the two most powerful people in the room were a woman and a man of color, most of the political leadership in this country is still white and male.

James I said...

With incredible chutzpah the ultra-Orthodox Jewish newspaper, Di Tzeitung, published the same White House released picture with Secretary of State Clinton and Security Counsel member Audrey Tomason photoshopped out. The paper explained that its "editorial policies are guided by a Rabbinical Board," which, "because of the laws of modesty, does not allow for the publishing of photos of women." Those crazy laws of modesty!

They had to apologize because some other laws by the White House stated that the picture could not be altered. Which itself was funny because the White House altered it to hide a classified document.

I'd love to see the front page picture in the paper when Golda Meir was elected Prime Minister of Israel.