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Jul 26, 2007

"W" On His Own Two Feet


by John Lucaites

The President seems to be looking for just about anything these days to prop himself up.  So when his "Commission on Care for America’s Returning Wounded Warriors" issued 35 recommendations this past week, he jumped on it, directing Robert Gates to implement them immediately.  And, of course, it was a perfect time to take a jog on the South Lawn with two veterans who had lost legs in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The image above, featured in the NYT, fits a recent pattern of portraying the president as miniscule, a Lil’ Bush.  In this instance the White House dominates the image, but note too how it is somewhat hidden behind a veil of trees and bushes, peaking out as if to suggest the potential for majesty, even if its occupant is not up to the task.

The full irony is made explicit in this shot from WAPO’s “Day in Photos.”


It portrays what appears to be a pot-bellied president being propped up by the amputated veterans, each seemingly stronger and more stable than he.

(image 1: Andrew Councill for the New York Times; image 2: Chris Kleponis-Pool, Getty Images)


Bush looks awfully tense in that photo. What's up with his left shoulder?

Take it easy on the pot-belly, man. Not all of us are graced with washboard stomachs. Are we all not entitled to wear regular T-shirts and have our sweat reveal a bit of belly after a workout?

If only you could see my six pack?

Seriously, I pondered long and hard about the "pot-bellied president." But in the end I think it is something of a visual metaphor for a presidency that is guilty of gluttony and now is bloated on all that unfettered consumption of power. Maybe cartoonists will start drawing him with the belly?

I have very mixed feelings about these photo ops. On the one hand, it enrages me to see Bush using men injured in his war of choice as props. OTOH, these are strong men who deserve to be honored for their bravery and for overcoming their injuries.

They chose to appear; they have no problem with it.

Is it exploitative and disrespectful to show their new-found athleticism? Would it be better to photo op them in uniform, Preznit in a suit, with medals and salutes?

Or is it just another "look at me" moment for Bush, highlighting his own pet interest, a way for him to show off, yet again; another opportunity for him to take some of their bravery and lustre and apply it to himself?

And yes, he looks like a little kid next to these guys. They look like men, he looks like Alfred E Neuman.


The frailty is starting to show.

Not long ago, he projected "athelete" in these photo ops. Now, he looks old and uncomfortable. Everybody gets old, but for Bush it holds more significance. With the loss of power will come the time for reflection and the fruits of past actions will inevitably ripen.

The tightness in his shoulders and his staring straight at the camera ("would you take the frickin' picture already") tells me he'd really rather not be surrounded by men who he's crippled - he's a little freaked out. They are focused on him; he's trying to get the picture Karl said he needed. The fact is they could each kill him on the spot (and might not have much to loose if they have mental troubles or PTSD). This adds up to make him the weakest one in the picture - physically, morally, and certainly in terms of honor and bravery.

Whatever Bush thought he would personally gain by his murderous and evil tenure will be impermanent. His 'fun' time is over... and there's hell to pay.

The Presidency is less and less about the man and more and more about the Position--hence the starring role played by the White House in the first picture. It reminds me of those Chinese landscape tradition where tiny little people cling to vast Mountains, "cultivated landscapes that embody the culture and cultivation of their masters." That is, the WH = GWB.

The second picture surprises me...Bush appears to be leaning on the two veterans, supported by about visual evidence for the claim that Bush's entire Presidency has been propped up by the military. And with that hunched left shoulder, he cuts an "Igor"-esque figure, heh, it's sort of a General Frankenstein and Igor thing.

Btw, lots of hands and feet/feet substitutes in these pictures.

Hi, great site. Come here all the time from Digby. Anyhoo, perhaps the pot belly and hunched shoulders are evidence of a flak jacket, which our brave leader is said to wear in almost all public appearances? The small lump on his left shoulder, in particular, looks like it could be a strap, and the curve of his belly is a bit sharp for a soft spare tire. Could be, eh?

Not that any of that makes the whole thing any less sad...

The left shoulder is almost certainly because he feels uncomfortable "holding hands" with the soldier on the right.

If the photo had been taken when Bush's administration started, there would've been six legs, not three.

He looks like he's being gently coaxed inside to get his undies changed.

Jacques, I do agree that he's raising his left shoulder, too, and his whole body language screams, "Uncomfortable!" Still, I wonder about the vest...

Oh my God he looks old! It seems that these two titans are about to crush the puny man. Amazing.

Check Reuters for the intent- there was a photo posted that cropped the torso of Bush and the soldiers out of this: photo, leaving just an image of their legs walking away from the camera. This was the goal, I think, of the photo shoot: to show an equivalencey between the three sets of legs that shows a sense of recovery. Remember, these soldiers would have been carefully chosen for the photo-op; why would Bush choose soldiers with leg injuries? Walking implies health, and as has been pointed out here before, feet and shoes are powerful symbols of common humanity and 'fallen soldiers' in particular. Seeing these soldiers walking around with the president (or someone with 'healthy' legs) implies similar health and relates the three pairs. The problem for Bush is that... we know Bush. The only effective picture for him is the one that erases his face. Once we see him, we recognize his needs and goals, and the simple question of wellness becomes obscured.

Dunc -- The link you left doesn't seem to work for me. But your comments are on the mark. You nailed it!

Sometimes I really have to give serious consideration to MSM offerings of this nature. Once upon a time, The 6 Million Dollar Man and The Bionic Woman were merely entertainment on TV, back before cable, back when we had only 3 channels. It was science fiction.

Now we are presented with images of real men walking and running on stalks of titanium. But unlike the transformations of Col. Steve Austin and Jamie Sommers we now forego the notion of making prostheses that look human; no, we're going with The Terminator Look here.

Then couple that with the "let's all go have a beer" pose of the AWOLer in the middle. And in some strange way, it strikes me that the amputees are the ones supporting Bush, after a long night of knocking down some tequila shooters with beer chasers. (Or as we called them in college, "depth charges".)

There is something muchly wrong happening in front of our very eyes.

Images like this neutralize the pain and suffering and loss these men have endured. (We don't want to bother our beautiful minds with that, now do we?) Yes, they are able to walk, and run. Yes, that is a good thing, but something human is missing in this whole story. And I am sure if given the choice, those two young men would like to have their legs back.

It's as if we are being told to "get used to it, this is the way of the future. You're gonna see a lot more where this came from."

I also get the feeling that Bush would love tipping those men over, just for laughs.

What a sad set of pictures. Do these soldiers know that their images are being used for the crassest of propaganda purposes—to deflect the public from commissions' report on the poor medical treatment the veterans receive? I suppose so, since they did obviously choose to pose and (unlike Bush), they're obviously not stupid. I wonder how they'll feel about their injuries and the medical treatment they receive as they age and the years go on. Bush looks confused and disoriented, as usual.

Seeing these soldiers walking around with the president (or someone with 'healthy' legs) implies similar health and relates the three pairs.

To extend what Dunc said, I think that's why the NYT chose the image it did for this article: Minimizing the amputees visually has the effect of minimizing the gravity of their life-altering injuries as well as the political messiness of the health-care quagmire for vets. As if the Times were telling us: "See this completely normal and well-manicured scene? All those ugly Walter Reed problems are all fixed now."

I don't think the Times photo shows Bush in a negative light. The scene is serene and lovely, the men familiar and equal. Equating the handicapped president with the handicapped vets is actually sympathetic to Bush.

rtbag: I think you are partly right when you say "I don't think the Times photo shows Bush in a negative light." Or, more specifically, I think they chose an image that ambiguates the situation a great deal, and in a way that protects their "obligation" to neutrality, as well as the somewhat unspoken contract between media and government to show the president in a positive light. So, one can look at it and interpret as you do viz. a serene and lovely scene, etc. And how could one object to that? BUT one can also read it in a somewhat skeptical light as minimizing the president's statute -- afterall, here the president is no larger than these crippled men ... a point made poignant and powerful by the WAPO image... and clearly dwarfed by the scene, which as Dunc and PTate point out, is more about the office ("the king is dead .... long live the king").

Chests and shoulders. The soldiers have open chests and relaxed shoulders. Bush looks as if he doesn't. In all probability, the double amputee is supporting himself with his hand on Bush's shoulder but it looks like Bush is wobbly instead. This produces the opposite impression from what was intended.

It might be interesting to compare this to any pictures of FDR erect between his two bodymen.

I saw or read something a while back about advances in artificial legs. I think this kind is especially for running, but are not too stable for standing still. If that is true, I wonder if this is showing them reaching out to the Pres for balance, which I'm sure has been cleared with the SS. Clues: the blue-shirt's hand on Bush's shoulder and the somewhat off-kilter arm of black-shirt guy, to maintain his balance. I also wonder if this photo-op is less about veteran's care and more to obfuscate the breaking news about the murder of Tillman, documents relating to which were denied the congress due to "executive privilege." All of which happened late yesterday.

Yes I'd call that a pot belly on the Pres. Especially for someone who has made such a big deal in past "photo-ops" of running, riding his bike, etc. Maybe he's drinking more than running lately.

John, I think there are several aesthetic elements in the NYT photo that may subtly override a skeptical read of that particular image.

The men are literally in step, not out of step, with one another: each has one leg back, one forward. Their heads are down, almost at the exact same angle; their arms are relaxed, almost in the same position. Like three members of a team walking off a field together after a tough-played game they just lost.

The photo's composition follows the rule of thirds, and in fact, the building's architecture provides the horizontal grid: just visually extend the lines that are created by the second-floor balcony and the top of the awning. The vertical grid aligns just in front of the bald vet in black T-shirt and just before the white column "closest" to us (which, because it's closest, appears as the largest). The figures are heading into the "open space" of the photograph, just like they are supposed to. This image is a textbook example of how to compose a perfect photograph.

Beautiful, gentle diagonals are created by the walkway, the bushes, the roofline.

The photo is roughly half dark and half white (as well as half natural, half manmade; half amorphous, half geometric symmetry). The dark side has contrasting white verticals (T-shirts, legs); the white side has contrasting dark verticals (the windows). As in all allegories, the figures are heading from darkness to light.

The White House landscaping is designed by Frederick Law Olmstead's son. I can't prove that it has an effect of serenity on the scene, but I personally respond to Olmstead's landscape designs that way.

The Washington Post is the paper that broke the Walter Reed-scandal story, so it makes sense that WAPO chose a blatantly negative image of Bush. I think it's a fine exercise to compare the two papers' takes, but I do not think most ordinary people will do such image-comparing, and so I don't think one photo plays off the other in the real world.

rtbag: Again, you make a great case for reading the image in terms of serenity (the allegorical reading is a bit of a stretch for me, but you make a "best case" for it) and the like. And I see that as one way to read the image. Some will want to read it that way. But if you compare it with other recent NYT photos (so I'm bracketting the WAPO image here) you will see that they have tended to miniaturize the president in relationship to his setting, almost always the WH. Now I'm not saying that folks are sitting there and calculating this and noting ... gee, in the last week they've done this several times ... I think the effect is far more subtle (and interesting) than that. Rather, what I'd say is that they have begun to develop something of a convention that is being repeated over and again. And we know that repetition is a powerful persuasive device. The really interesting thing is that they do it in a way that is ambiguous ... lending itself to two different readings, one that reproduces the conventional assumptions of the majesty of the presidency, the other which is a more cynical "dig." What makes the WAPO image interesting for me is how it calls attention to the irony of the other images in somewhat direct and bold terms--there is no ambiguity there, even though it is really unlikely that these two guys are actually propping up the president. Then again, these are just pictures and all this talk is just mere rhetoric ... right? Off to bed. See you soon.

John, I do agree with you about the visual pattern emerging of the "incredibly shrinking president" in relation to the White House. I wonder if it's a deliberate or subconscious reference to his lame duck status, or if Bush himself is keeping as far away from the press as possible. Whatever it is, it's fun to watch. As long as Congress doesn't let him get away completely.

That is hardly a "pot belly" in traditional American terms.

I have a friend with an artificial leg of this nature. The poster above is correct; they are not easily able to stand still. I perceive that they are leaning on him for balance and that he has stiffened in order to be "solid" for them. That brings up another set of metaphorical issues, of course, but that's another post. Anyway, my friend says he believes that they have to lean on him somewhat for the time it would take to snap the photo.

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