Nov 11, 2004
Looking Like Himself (or: Campaign Hangover)
Here is the shot from today's front page NYTimes story ("Nominee for Attorney General Rides an Ideological Divide") on Bush's new Attorney General. Here are some impressions.
Bush's General Appearance
I think it was particularly telling, in the first Bush-Kerry debate, that "W" kept reiterating how hard his job was. In this photo -- especially when you see it in print -- Bush looks terrible. His eyes are puffy, his nose and his cheeks are red, his forehead is showing new and deep furrows, and he looks both physically and emotionally heavier. (In fact, if you didn't know Bush was on the wagon, you might think he was hung over ...from something other than the election.)
I was impressed this week by news stories saying that Bush finally felt like he been legitimately elected. Throughout his first term, it felt that the thoroughly scripted nature of his Presidency required him to exert the most excessive amount of self-control.
This week, his apparent "vindication" quite possibly has resulted in Bush being more himself. One form of that seems to involve letting himself wear his emotions. Although Bush looks somewhat worn in this shot (and/or sad, and/or emotional?), you can also see something of that cynical/skeptical look, as well (cocked head, single raised eyebrow). Last term, that would never have been let through.
Unless he just badly needs a vacation (like the year he took off after his first "election"), maybe what we're getting a preview of is a Bush who (suddenly) couldn't care less what kind of face he presents to the public. The question is, with his guard down, will the product turn out to be better, or worse?
Bush's Choice For AG
By all description, Bush is conducting his cabinet reevaluation in an iron fisted manner -- putting all cabinet members in a form of lock-down, forcing them to publicly await the decision on their fate. With the selection of Gonzales, a long-time Bushie who is low key and knows how to take orders (he was the intellectual hatchet man behind the interrogation policy that spawned Abu Ghraib), you can take one rather independent cabinet officer off the board for the Christian far right, but add one to the list of Bush clones.
...With his new found confidence (or, simply entitlement), it's probably safe to say that, this time around, Bush intends to pick all the folks himself.
(photo: NYTimes --AFP/Luke Frazza)
Nov 10, 2004
Shrinking and Fading (Or: Why I Think It Would Be a Fatal Mistake For Kerry To Run Again)
This morning's LA Times has an article (registration required) entitled "2008 Run Among Kerry's Options," suggesting John Kerry is contemplating another bid for the presidency.
During the campaign, believing that Kerry was the far superior choice to Bush, I refrained from criticizing him. If you've been following this blog, you also know I felt the photo coverage of Kerry was heavily biased. Because the campaign is over, however, I also have to say that the nature of that bias was not incidental. What the coverage did was telegraph many of the shortcomings that argue against Kerry running again.
Just to be clear, I don't feel the mercilessly demeaning photo coverage of Kerry was at all fair -- unless the press had been equally prepared to fix a lens on the "underside" of Bush, capturing a great deal more of his anger, contemptuousness, and anxiety. Fairness aside, however, the camera didn't lie. What the photojournalism provided (in overabundant measure) was a snapshot of Kerry's fundamental political and personal flaws, emphasizing core problems with stature; presence; standing; and energy.
What is the best way to illustrate what I'm talking about? Because I believe visual language is as illustrative and "readable" as pictures, I thought I would isolate some key lines from the LATimes article, drawing out categorical weaknesses in Kerry's personality.
His friends, contributors and former campaign aides say he was energized by winning almost 56 million votes
Kerry's energy level wouldn't be so notable if it wasn't as variable as it is. You can't read about people close to Kerry without hearing of efforts to track his basic level of activation. If I had to account for the problem, I'd say it derives from passivity and/or regular episodes of low grade depression.
At a campaign staff party over the weekend at a Washington restaurant, Kerry discussed his intention to remain engaged
"We intend to stay together," Crowe said. "I'm with him. I've been with him for 30 years." He added, "John Kerry is not going to fade away."
Throughout the campaign, Kerry suffered (both in reality, as well as in press photos) from a lack of presence. The Newsweek special issue on the campaign, for example, cited Kerry's regular tendency to physically withdraw from his family and staff.
As with his energy level, the main reason for added resonance around his determination to remain engaged is because of his tendency to disengage. (In Kerry's case, it never seems to happen until there is an extra marshaling of will). Notice, also, how his associate refers to "fading" as a potential outcome. Besides this LATimes piece, ABC ran a similar story on their website dealing with Kerry's future plans. The title? "Friends Don't See Kerry Fading Away."
"The senator's standing and stature have increased enormously,"
Despite being selected by his party as the nation's potential 44th president, he returns to work next week as the junior senator from Massachusetts.
To be frank, Kerry has a real problem with his sense of stature. If anything, the "enormous" increase in standing reflects that too much remains to be gained. Also, it's telling Kerry would be referred to as the "Junior" senator after 20 years on the job and the credible presidential run.
For all the talk about why Kerry lost, I think there are some simple conclusions to be made.
Personally, I don't believe it had much to do with fundamentalist Christians or "moral values." If you study the the post election analysis, the country is actually a lot less polarized (more purple, then blue and red) then the polarizing special interest groups would have you believe. Also, statistics bore out that most of the states with "Anti-Gay Marriage" propositions did not turn out voters in statistically higher percentages than did the rest of the country.
The main reason Kerry lost, I believe, is because of these character issues. Rove pegged Kerry from the beginning as a man who has trouble asserting himself and knowing where he stands. The Republicans exploited it to the fullest. When it came down to the wire, Kerry (as is his custom) started feeling the adreneline, became more emboldened, and then was much more able to express himself.
From that point, he did a tremendous job stating the case against Bush. However, he still had the problem of self-definition. And that's where truly undecided voters couldn't overcome the doubts.
It's bad enough they:
...have taken over the FDA
...are pumping kids full of antidepressants
...are pushing branded allergy medicines that are less effective than inexpensive products sold over-the-counter
...have all but overrun (or bought off) doctors by marketing directly to consumers...
...Now, they're getting into political advertising...?
Nov 08, 2004
Just Ignore That Man Behind The Curtain
As the administration begins marketing the concept of "a new Bush," I thought it might be useful to provide some visual evidence of how different Bush "the product" is from Bush "the man."
Earlier this year, Time Magazine did a photo journal of the campaign called "Backstage with Bush." (Link). (Actually, the most telling thing about the series was how staged the supposedly unstaged shots actually were.)
There is one shot, however, this was particularly revealing. It shows Bush with Arnold Schwarzenegger in a confrontation over who goes first as they are making their way on stage. In the photo, the Bush ego is on full display.
The President's hand is out, demanding that Arnold go ahead. His cheeks are clenched, his gaze is down, and he looks dug in, stubbornly unwilling to relent. An aid nervously stands by, obviously alarmed by the situation, but at the same time, seemingly hesitant to get involved. Laura Bush is also there, but her back is to the camera. Still, her body language doesn't seem tense. She could be oblivious, or just trained to ignore these little scenes. (On the other hand, she might also get some thrill out of George's power tantrums.)
Oh, but wait! Those two guy look so buddy-buddy in front of that admiring crowd (Invitation, only!). Could I possibly have seen something that just wasn't there? After all, with such such convincing evidence to the contrary, how could I dare think the boy next door was actually a bully?
(images: Time.com; YahooNews--AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
Nov 05, 2004
Following The Script
Nov 03, 2004
Today, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist made an empassioned plea for unity and bipartisanship in the new Senate.
“It is time to heal the partisan divide and begin the process of reconciliation. Beginning last night, I spoke with many of my colleagues – Republican and Democrat – to begin that process. Now is the time for all citizens to lay partisan squabbling aside and work for a safer, healthier, more prosperous America. ...This election is over. Our nation is at war. It’s time to overcome our differences, lay aside the rancor and get to work. The American people expect and deserve no less.”
But first, the Senator had to hop on his plane and do what was billed as a little "victory tour" of the South.
"Well, that was a fun trip. ...Now, where was I? Oh yeah, bipartisanship!"
Nov 01, 2004
Setting Out the Pumpkins
Of course, the Kerry hunting trip was something of a farce. But it was political farce. And, as silly as it was, at the political ground level, it probably helped balance out an image of Kerry that had been overly distorted in the other direction.
Who would understand this better, in fact, then the people who turned George Bush into Top Gun?
On the other hand, the suddenly appearance of McClellan, Hughes and Rove in hunting suits (Rove looking like an oversized beaver) gives an entirely different impression. I'm sorry, but this is just not something you write off to Holloween.
As masters of spin, this crew have done a profound job not just scripting every last camera shot, but also keeping their own fingerprints off the product. The fact they would suddenly hop off the campaign plane, in costumes, in such a bland act of mockery, just doesn't make sense. (Just look at the embarrassment on McClellan's face.) Six months ago, they would never have considered it. Three months ago, same thing.
They're losing it.
I've been hard on the NYTimes for their election photo coverage, which has tended to give Bush a free ride. Why, at this point, however, would the trend suddenly shift. Reverse bias?
More likely, with strong vibrations in the air about the mood of the electorate, this shot is just foreshadowing real events.
Oct 28, 2004
Baghdad, Ohio (11/2/04 minus 5)
If bad news in Iraq spells bad news for Bush, then Wednesday wasn't a very good day. Looking at the crucial battleground of Ohio, here is a sample of the state's larger newspapers, along with the type and number of war-related articles on the front page.
As a footnote, the Washington Post reports Kerry leading in newspaper endorsements, 142 to 123 (with 36 papers bailing on Bush after having supported him over Gore).
Interestingly, the article mentions three of the papers above. One, the Cleveland Plain Dealer, decided not to make an endorsement after having backed Bush in 2000. Two others, the Cincinnati and Columbus papers, give Bush the nod.
But my question is, what does it say about your chances when the two largest Ohio papers that endorsed you show up with three negative Iraq stories each on the front page just five days before the election?
Oct 27, 2004
Reading the Subliminals
In an election season in which the White House has tried to feminize John Kerry, what is a danger of the press playing -- at least, unconsciously --into the stereotype?
In looking at all the shots of Kerry and Clinton at Monday's huge rally in Philadelphia, I didn't see one other shot--like this one on the cover of the NYTimes-- where it seemed like Clinton and Kerry were holding hands. (If you look at the photo up close -- as you should be able to do in the on-line article-- Kerry also has a sort of sheepish/embarrassed look on his face.)
At first, I decided not to make much of this -- until I read the article. One paragraph, in particular, seemed to reinforce my impression. It had to do with a man, interviewed for the piece, who couldn't help fawning over Clinton:
"I had quadruple surgery in 1989, I know what it's like what he's doing," said Jim Mangine, 59, a telephone technician who took three hours off work to attend the lunchtime rally. "He looks fantastic. I didn't think he was that handsome - he's a good-looking guy, and I'm a man. It'll definitely get people off the fence."
In analyzing the photo with the quote, I began to think the "pull" (if there actually is one) might be coming more from the sexualizing of Clinton than (just) the feminization of Kerry. If you look at the Yahoo shot I featured yesterday of Clinton (at the same rally) with a female admirer, it could be that even a "high brow" paper like the Times can't help from "layering in" sexual allusions when it comes to the former President.
Afterall, if Clinton can have such a passionate effect on some random guy attending a rally, why wouldn't writing about and photographing Clinton get people off ( the proverbial fence), as well.
Now You Sea It, Now You Don't
Where is BnN going after the election?
Beyond my regular political beat, I will also be targeting the most insidious political manipulation in America: commercial advertising.
More and more, people who contact me express the feeling that they are being overwhelmed and exploited by ever more sophisticated visual messages.
You might not always (or often, for that matter) agree with my take, but I believe I've helped make the readers of this blog more sophisticated visual consumers of political spin. My goal -- going forward -- is to help raise that level of awareness, sophistication, immunization and critique not just toward political and editorial images, but commercial ones as well.
Oct 24, 2004
Rove's Homosexual Panic (Or: All Liz All The Time)
In his column this week ("The O'Reilly Factor for Lesbians"), Frank Rich discusses the Republican overreaction to John Kerry's "Cheney's gay daughter" remark. The main trajectory of the story involves the phony outrage by the conservatives for "outing" somebody who was already openly gay.
Actually, the aspect of the story I'm most interested in is the Bush/Cheney campaign's panicked response. Noting how Karl Rove relies on a demographic strategy to win elections, Rich emphasizes how dependent (at this point, you could probably say desperate) Bush is to turn out every one of those approximately four million Christian fundamentalist voters. As a result, it's not surprising that Karl would be quite concerned about Mary's sexual orientation becoming (more) common knowledge. (You'd think she had ties to al Qaeda, as well.)
The press and the blogosphere have mainly charted the Bush counterattack in terms of these overwrought and falsely indignant "outing" charges. If you follow the flow of the campaign from a more visual perspective, however, you might see another aspect to the response. That angle is to innundate the (conservative) electorate with the face of Cheney's "healthy" daughter.
In exhibit one, check out this Q. and A. section that just popped up on the Bush/Cheney website:
Annoited as an official campaign spokesman, Liz is now answering the hand-picked questions of all those Bush fundamentalists out there writing in to the campaign. Of course, as a woman and a mother of four, this qualifies Liz as an expert on family values.
In exhibit two, here's a shot from the Bush/Cheney photo gallery showing the Anti-Mary on the campaign trail, reintroducing the Vice-President in Eugene, Oregon as the healthy father of a living, breathing heterosexual.
And in exhibit three (after stints last Wednesday on the O'Reilly Factor--where she primarily dodged questions about Mary, and on Thursday on CNN --in which Judy Woodruff was apparently too scared to even bring Mary up), here was the coup of the weekend: Karl managed to land the Anti-Mary (now, suddenly, a campaign "senior advisor") on "Face The Nation" to debate Kerry's senior advisor, Joe Lockhart. (The move was so slick, The Note didn't even take note of it.)
Why the Kerry people agreed to that match up (especially during the "woman's vote" blitz), I can't figure out.
(image sources: Bush/Cheney '04; YahooNews)
Oct 21, 2004
A Real Cell Job
In the latest Newsweek, the cover story is devoted to the stem cell debate. The thesis of the article is that this topic actually has the power to tip the election.
Any marketing person knows that there are generally two great motivators: fear and sex. Of course, in the current frenzied election environment, the stem cell topic is a natural for the news seller. On one side, you've got the general fear of science gone amok. On the other side, you've got the political hysteria about genetic farming and tampering with embryos.
Certainly, the lead story does its scary best on the political end. The text does a fine job. And the pictures -- which is where I place a lot of my attention -- are good too. I found many effective contributions: On the first facing page is a rather dark picture of a woman holding up her daughter who is suffering from juvenile diabetes. Both stare into the camera with guilt inducing expressions that almost cry out for some kind of prosecution. The second page has a dark, close up picture of a more-wrinkled-than-usual Laura Bush. The fourth page has a discomforting shot of a priest (in this case, an actual Archbishop) posed in front of a wooden cross hanging on a stark wall.
But that's all standard stuff. What I'm particularly interested in is the way Newsweek uses the other articles to tap into (and exploit) deeper anxieties about the stem cell issue. The "hook" to effect this is a special feature in the issue called "Next Frontiers," which highlights new developments in science and technology.
Here, what you find are a number of articles that, I believe, subliminally tie-back to the stem cell piece. For example, there's a write-up labeled "How to Program A Cell" which mentions how scientists are "starting to tinker" with genes and human bacteria. Remarkably, there is one line that says: "Scientists can even program cell colonies to grow into circles or hearts in the petri dish."
(What, did somewhat say "they" can grow hearts in a dish!!)
The centerpiece of this section, however, is an article about the film "The Polar Express" and advancements in movie special effects. If you noticed, there is a teaser for it on the magazine's cover.
It's in this article, I believe, where the worries raised in the stem cell feature really get expressed. The discussion may be about digital --as opposed to biological--manipulation, but the story goes out of its way to suggest the genie is leaving the bottle. The article talks about the power to capture and replicate muscles, bones, joints, fingers and skin. It refers to the creation of "fake people" that are "indistinguishable from real ones." There is even reference to the development of a "photoreal male human" that the magazine was made privy to, but is otherwise still a secret. The piece concludes with the assurance that, given the funding, some maverick is going to finally find a way to duplicate reality.
After unearthing these cross connections, it's interesting to re-examine the magazine's cover. If you study it more closely, the portrait of Christopher Reeves and his wife is really bizarre. Reeves' wife, Dana, is looking directly at the viewer, and appears quite life-like. On the other hand, Reeves -- who almost everybody seeing this picture acutely realizes is newly dead -- has a fixed stare and the waxy look of an automaton. Add in the fact that his profile (on page 50) identifies him not by his name but by the not-human, biologically reconfigured character of "Superman" (the film role he was most known for), and you can start to get a little confused as to who (or what) you're looking at -- not to mention, what we're getting ourselves into with all this stem cell business.
Once you've taken it this far, the shot of Hanks in the upper corner starts to fit right in. It's easier to see if you think of the cover like a movie poster. There's Reeves, the star, as a disembodied, genetically-recombined ghost. And there's Hanks, his co-star, playing the role of a mutation.
So, what is the feeling they're trying to leave you with? Maybe Reeves is a warning, and Hanks knows something that he's not telling.
Oct 11, 2004
More NYTimes Graphic Kerry Bashing -- Saturday Edition
Following on my last entry, here's the latest NYTimes photo/graphic feature comparing the two presidential campaigns. Saturday, the Times ran another one of those clever "Op-Art" pieces on the Editorial page. This one features two bumper stickers. The point of the piece (it's supposed to be ironic, I understand) contrasts the "strong" typography of the official Bush/Cheney bumper sticker with the "weak" Kerry/Edwards sticker. (To see the image at full size, go to the article and click on the link that reads: "the visual messages of the two candidates.")
Of course, it is ironic. And, satiric. Unfortunately, it's also just one more (in this case, blatant) example in a steady string of Times photos and graphics reinforcing the (desperate) Bush line.
Jun 14, 2004
Leading Pictures: Taking A Dive
Today's L.A. Times leads with a surreal photo of George Bush (the elder) skydiving. The crucial thing to understand is that he is descending in tandem with an army sergeant (that guy on top of him). As the caption explains: "Winds and clouds prevented Bush from jumping solo as part of his 80th birthday festivities."
Given that we're in an election cycle, and the entire Bush family took maximum advantage of last week's Reagan Marathon, what political subtexts come along with this image? I'll offer a few:
a.) Nothing ever goes according to plan with that family.
b.) I don't see a lot of clouds, just a lot of excuses.
c.) Just so nobody forgets, Bush Sr. is the real flyer in the family
d.) The Bush's take big leaps, but rarely do they come out on top.
e.) Everything is a photo op with these people.
f.) Must feel weird not to have Barbara on his back.
Jun 02, 2004
Singing In The Reign
The President's surreal episode with his umbrella yesterday seemed completely fitting. With the naming of the new interim leaders in Iraq, it's as if a magical wind has blown through Washington carrying all his troubles away. Suddenly Bush is ebullient. He's turned the corner. And now he's off to Europe to claim victory. Again.
(image 1: Reuters 6/2 6:46 pm ET; image 2: AFP 6/2 3:45 pm ET; image 3: Reuters 6/1 9:03 pm ET)
May 29, 2004
Final Results Of The Pre-Memorial Day Iraqi Prime Minister Handicap: 1.) Iraqi Governing Council 2.) United Nations 3.) United States
Track Conditions: Extremely Slick. Weather: Dark Winning Time: Before Brahimi Could Blink. Owners: Baath Party/C.I.A.
Apr 15, 2004
Just Do It!Unfortunately, western democracy doesn't always wear that well.
(adapted from actual photo: NY Times Week In Review. April 11, 2004. p.4)
Nov 20, 2003
Arnold: In A Picture
Yesterday's lead story in the L.A. Times highlighted Arnold Schwarznegger's first day on the job as California Governor. Directly alongside this image, in the second paragraph of the story, Arnold is quoted as saying: We're not here to point fingers at anyone. That time is over. It's not the election now. It's just this is the reality."
Sep 02, 2003
Labor Day Special: Bush Finally Shows Somebody Who's Boss
Aug 30, 2003
Bush Shows Us The Love
It might not be popularly known, but the President is particularly compassionate toward blacks. Whenever he has a free moment, he likes to help them build houses and go from welfare to work. The Compassion section of the George W. Bush campaign website has 20 images in the picture gallery, including:
1. President Bush is greeted by black children at a YMCA in Dallas where he spoke about health and fitness
2. President Bush talks to black volunteers at a Habitat for Humanity event accompanied by HUD Secretary Mel Martinez
3. President Bush addresses the 2003 National Urban League Conference
5. President Bush says hello to a group of black children during his visit to Botswana
7. President Bush reads to black schoolchildren
8. The President, standing next to black boy, paints an American flag at a July 4th event in Philadelphia
9. President and Mrs. Bush show their support for black workers at an AIDS treatment center in Uganda during their trip to Africa
10. President Bush visits black people at a faith-based welfare reform initiative in Milwaukee, Wisconsin
11. The President and Laura Bush lend black people a hand at a Washington, D.C. soup kitchen during the holidays.
12. President Bush visits with black welfare-to-work graduates in Charlotte, North Carolina.
13. President Bush outlines agenda for alleviating suffering on the African continent standing beside symbol of Africa)
14.President Bush, with black officials, delivers remarks at the signing of his Global HIV/AIDS Initiative
16. President Bush shares a laugh with black women who have made the transition from welfare to work.
17. President Bush helps black man build a home for Habitat for Humanity
18. President Bush promotes community service with black people in Bridgeport, Connecticut
19. On stage with black people, the President visits Chicago to highlight the importance of moving more Americans from welfare to work
20. On stage with whites and many blacks, President Bush outlines his compassionate conservative agenda for America's inner cities in Cleveland, Ohio
Jul 25, 2003
Where Iraq Is GoingThe administration tends to talk about the "opposition" in Iraq in terms of scattered malcontents, or remnants of the Baath party. Amazingly, their pronouncements never address the different regional and ethnic elements in the country, and the degree to which our intervention has suddenly and chaotically put these different elements "into play" against one another.
Jul 24, 2003
Bush: We've Won AGAIN!This time, it didn't even take the aircraft carrier...
Jul 14, 2003
Free Market Social Engineering
Jul 13, 2003
Bush Continues To Be "Moved"
On The BAG: Associated Press photo on cover of New York Times, 7/13. Close Up Of President Bush's Hand As He Takes The Hand Of An H.I.V.- Infected Woman In Nigeria, As Her Daughter Holds Onto Her.
Jul 12, 2003
President Obviously Still "Moved"
Jul 11, 2003
President Obviously "Moved"
Headline on the STATE DEPARTMENT WEBSITE (7/11/03):
President "Moved" by His Africa Trip, Powell Says
Article Summary: On July 10th, Secretary Powell told Larry King that the President had been moved by his five nation trip to the continent. He said that Mr. Bush was particularly moved by his trip to Goree Island off the coast of Senegal. "... I think he was deeply moved by that," Mr. Powell said. "I think he was also moved by his time in Senegal and South Africa and today in Botswana..." Mr. Powell added.
On The BAG :
Reuters photo in New York Times on July 9th.
President Bush holding hands with the Senegalese president, Adboulaye Wade.
Associated Press photo on cover of New York Times July 10th.
President Bush and President Thabo Mbeki of South Africa in an embrace.