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Jun 05, 2008

The Machiavellian Mystery Man: Michael Powell's Spin On Barack Obama


(Click on any image for larger view)

Yesterday, the morning after Obama nailed down the Democratic nomination, I almost choked on Michael Powell's formulation of a candidate profile on the front page of the NYT.  I encourage you to read it, if only to see what Obama is up against.

For The BAG's purposes, I want to concentrate on how the story was adapted to the stealthy-named "Who Is Barack Obama?" slide show.  (How reasonable is it, I wonder, that this far into the election cycle Obama would still be framed as such an unknown?) As you'll see below, Powell's often denigrating, at times coded descriptions reinforce all manner of stereotypes, some character-based, some fear-raising, some racist, others classist and still others anti-intellectual.

Here's the caption accompanying the lead off image above:

On the cusp of becoming the first African-American to capture a major party nomination, Senator Barack Obama remains a protean political figure, inspiring devotion in supporters who see him as a transformative leader even as he remains inscrutable to critics.

Beware that protean inscrutability!  Translation (with the guidance of Webster's):  Beyond his devoted followers, Obama remains unknowable through his ability to intentionally alter his presentation and character.

Just like the TIME cover we looked at in March, this shot frames Obama as a mystery figure who, although commanding the floor, defies illumination.  The invisible figure in the floodlights -- whether reminiscent of flashlights or headlights in the dark of night, or maybe Sammy Davis once again -- offers the shadow as the primary element in distinguishing Obama for his race.



Here is the fourth slide.  The caption reads:

Mr. Obama played basketball in Union Mills, Ind., in May. The senator is a man of contradictions: He is an idealist who pursues the national spotlight with the intensity of a bloodhound and finds the top prize almost within grasp, yet he holds tight to the belief that he can draw a curtain of normalcy about his family.

Beyond the intimation of hypocrisy just for wanting a more normal family life and the hit for being inordinately attention-seeking, the photo -- using the primal stereotype of the black male as ball player -- not only equates Obama to a bloodhound, in this case, a hunting animal, but one which -- employing the term "blood" -- also has racial associations.



Here's the seventh panel.  The captions reads:

Mr. Obama's wife, Michelle, with the candidate at a rally in March in Houston, is a Harvard-trained lawyer whose fires often burn hotter than those of her husband. She pointedly advises Mr. Obama to forswear the cerebral and embrace the visceral.

Michelle "pointedly" advises Obama to "forswear" the cerebral?  Well, you see where this is going.  Hanging the primal association on the potential First Lady, we're led to imagine that, in embracing "the fiery one," the nominee is at risk of abandoning all reason.  Notice, by the way, how the public setting, with all the white people going about their business, makes the black couple's emotionality (or, is it another stereotype, this time the black couple's sexuality?) seem somehow outside the norm.



Here is the eighth slide, plus caption:

He favors moderate tastes, preferring organic tea to a tumbler of gin, salmon to steak, a fruit plate to fries. He jokes with audiences about tossing back a beer, but usually takes only a swig or two from a bottle, seemingly trying to prove to television cameras that he is a regular guy, as he did in May at the Raleigh Times bar in Raleigh, N.C.

Wow, hold the salmon!  Does this description make BHO out as an elite, quiche-eating, latte-drinking, Volvo-driving, blue collar-averse poser, or what?  Didn't Newsweek pretty much wring out this one-liner?



The copy on number nine reads:

Mr. Obama studies his chosen world like a Talmudist, charting trends and noting which rivals are strong and which are weak. His politics are liberal but his instincts are accommodationist; he cultivates older, powerful mentors, Democratic and Republican, and he made his peace with the Chicago Democratic machine. An old Chicago hand notes that Mr. Obama seems to have read his Niccolo Machiavelli.

You get the picture?  The Machiavellian Obama, arms crossed and smiling at no one in particular stands behind the curtain ready to unleash who knows what kind of subterfuge while the rest of us remain in the dark.

(Note: I do not intend this write-up as an attack on the NYT and I hope -- going forward -- not to refer to that organization in monolithic terms.  There are things about The Times I like and admire, and other things I don't.  To the extent I have critique to offer, I plan to direct it to articles, images or, in this case, an author in particular.)

Barack Obama: Calm in the Swirl of History (Michael Powell - NYT)

(9:12 AM PST - Slightly edited for excessive reach)

(image 1: Doug Mills/The New York Times. image 2: Damon Winter/The New York Times. image 3: Jae C. Hong/Associated Press. image 4: Damon Winter/The New York Times. image 5: Doug Mills/The New York Times. image 6: Damon Winter/The New York Times.)


Thanks for that; an interesting piece. I like to think about most of the pics posted here, but this is such a cheap job that it doesn't demand much thought, seems to me. I especially like the not so veiled threat against his family in the fourth, and the just terrible, posed, awkward number eight.

Funny but when he came my way, he got a few big slices of stacked pizza and later in Portland he had a ton of ice cream. I guess that must just be more "protean inscrutability" as he assumes a false pleasing form to hide the "fromage and wine swilling surrendermonkey elitist secret Muslim terrorist who belongs to a too Christian church".

Is the grey lady drowning in hacks now? Say, is that the failed FCC Republican Michael Powell? I hope it is a different one, because while that would explain the hackery, it really makes me question the decision makers at the NYT. Really, the guy taken to task by Howard Stern and intellectually humiliated by him has no place on any front page. Ugh. In trying to find out, I only encounter more bad prose (like "gingerly fitting himself with the cloth of a partisan"); I give up.

PS. (typo "vaunting" where the text seems to read "vaulting", not that it changes the meaning much).

I don't think the slide show has the intended effect. The pictures overwhelm the prissy, hyper-intellectual text. For example, in the "Talmudic-Machiavellian" shot, the photo just looks like he thinks all this is funny. That makes him interesting, appealing, not scary.

Perhaps my interpretation requires getting over some kind of threshold that many viewers may not have leaped -- but I wonder. Perhaps he got the nomination because so many have leaped this...

Interesting that the NY Times are following the same script as the editorial page of The Wall Street Journal, which ran a piece yesterday with the title "The Obama We Don't Know" or something to that effect. As long as Bill Keller, Maureen Dowd, and Gail Collins remain at the Times, we can expect more of the same.

I read the article yesterday and found it distasteful; the photos take the cake. What I found myself thinking while reading was: Okay, Obama's ambitious. We get it. Can't the same be said of every person who has ever run for president? I think what sets Obama apart is his honesty--his willingness to voice self doubt and uncertainty, to think aloud as it were, especially in his writing. Describing his rise as all too easy, certainly intended as a criticism in this piece, is another way of saying that the man is gifted. But I guess I have been suckered in by the noninscrutable half of his oh so protean nature.

Note also all the implications that "bloodhounds" have in the history of slavery. The whole ambition theme screams "let's put this uppity black in his place as he is getting above his station and it is scary" to me. And the Talmudist comparison doesn't even make sense in the context - bad writing.

Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. I have difficulty reading that first slide -- the silhouette shot -- as depicting "a mystery figure who, although commanding the floor, defies illumination." I truly think that's a stretch, as is interpretation of the shadow "as the primary element in distinguishing Obama for his race."

I think it's primarily a beautiful photograph that was chosen both for its dramatic impact and to echo the idea of "inscrutability". In this case, I think Art precedes Politics.

Further, I don't interpret "inscrutability" and "protean" as conveying negative characteristics so much as conveying the sense of the media's puzzlement over Obama. I've read that Obama's kept himself rather distant from the press. Couple that with his cool control and it's easy to imagine Powell reaching for "inscrutable".

I didn't connect "protean" with the man himself but rather with the different ideas and symbols that Obama represents to his followers.

Yes, the caption is a little silly and certainly sloppy. I don't credit it with subliminal messages; it reads more like hackery.

Back in the early '90s, a lot of conservatives were consumed by a visceral loathing of Bill and Hillary Clinton (I have witnessed it firsthand, my sister was one of those people). The loathing was irrational and indefensible but the people who possessed it (many to this day) were completely uninhibited and unhinged in their attacks on the Clintons, claiming that they had Vince Foster murdered or Hillary was a closet-lesbian, etc..

I think we are already witnessing a similar phenomena in how some people perceive Barack Obama. They are and will continue to be blind to his many positive attributes and will instead endeavor to stereotype and demonize him. The percentage of people who cling to the belief that Obama is a Muslim don't do so simply because they have been misinformed, they do it because it is what they WANT to believe.

Unfortunately, it is inevitable that at times the MSM will repeat and amplify such misperceptions. Last night I saw all the major U.S. networks, plus the BBC follow the story of Obama clinching the nomination with a report about the conviction of "former Obama fundraiser" Tony Rezko. Most of them also managed to repeat the part about Rezko helping the Obamas buy their home. None bothered to mention that there had been no evidence of wrongdoing by Obama or that he had returned Rezko's contribution.

I'm bemused by the last piece of text, about "cultivating older, powerful mentors". Isn't that generally what mentors are about, to get the advice of older, more powerful people? I'm not sure why having mentors would make one "accomodationist".

Look at the top picture and think of what the photographer had to do to take it, namely: look through a very narrow aperture and take a very quick glimpse. For anyone who does this, he's going to remain a simple, single-dimensional character: black guy running for president.

For those who open their eyes and look - maybe a different, more subtle and detailed picture will emerge.

Sorry, Rove was Machiavellian. Obama IS the prince.

(How reasonable is it, I wonder, that this far into the election cycle Obama would still be subject to this blanket question?)

This primary has been a national story for a year. That means that the major news outlets have had to fill hundreds of broadcast hours, thousands of column inches of newsprint with information about the race, and one would think, the participants. And finally, when a winner emerges, it is time to introduce him to the nation? In reality the "Introducing…" construct is simply lazy, not because they couldn't do better, but because they don't think their readers deserve any better. Not caveat — no, piss on the emptor.

Strangely, the dark machinations inferred in the caption of #9 point at a tiny breakdown of racial barriers, a black man cast in the role of Iago instead of Othello. What next? A woman playing Desdemona?

This isn't the time or place. Sorry. Mike's dad, Colin, it was reported many many times, didn't run for President because of fears for his life. That's leadership, isn't it Mike. We know which convention you and dad will be at.

(Alternately, we know the GOP would never nominate a black. Still, a real profile in leadership and courage. Mike's certainly still up to doing the mans work however)

I pray we get some pictures. Colin, the virtual creator of the Bush presidency still, oddly, has his reputation sort of intact. The pictures of him in Minneapolis should just about finish that off.

Who is Michael Powell?

Surely not the corporate whore who was chairman of the FCC in Bush's first term. Why would he be writing for the NY Times?

And, yes to the commenters above who make a point of the paper's insult to its readers. One of the most closely reported, certainly the longest Democratic primaries in history, and readers are presumed to need an introduction to Barack Obama as if they were just now beginning to pay attention?

A C Powell succumbed to his baglady and died of prostatitis: if you knew jack, you could get kevorkianed; or savor that cigar sometime and kevorkian yourself.

Well, couldn't make Obama any blacker than this! [First shot.]

"....yet he holds tight to the belief that he can draw a curtain of normalcy about his family.
His family IS normal. Maybe that is what bugs the scandal. As for pursuing the national spotlight.....had anyone even heard of him before this campaign started??? His speech at the democratic convention went unnoticed to the degree that it has apparently disappeared from the glorious web.

"She pointedly advises Mr. Obama to forswear the cerebral and embrace the visceral. " OMG! A woman who can be a loving wife AND smart! Oh, what to do, what to do.....

"accommodationist" Excuse me??? What a reach. Pragmatism would have been much easier and an actual description of a sensible we can't use THAT!

And as for the Machiavellian....well, I'll bet that the author had never heard of that before the left applied it to the Bushies. And Talmudist?? So now he's not Christian, nor Muslim, but Jewish??? I suppose the writer was influenced because Obama spoke before AIPAC.

It occurs to me that all of these shots are what the left likes about Obama and what the right hates (fears) about him. As long as the meme is of questionability, unknowability, mysteriousness, etc., does it not lend some credence in the minds of the racists (?) that maybe all those anonymous emails just might be right!!! OMG, maybe he is a Muslim!

This Michael Powell's first article for NYT was apparently in March 2007. There was a Michael O. Powell who was a columnist for Pacific Publishing (Seattle). The FCC chairman was Michael K. Powell, who later worked for the Rand Corp. (2005), and rector of a board at College of William and Mary, per Wiki. Was unable to find out which Powell pens for NYT.

Zzyzx - It will take you about 10 seconds to find the 2004 convention speech by Barack Obama on YouTube. I watched it live online at and was astounded. I made my sister watch it, and said "He is going to be president one day."

I listened to his book about his father as he read it on CD, noting what a talented mimic of other voices and accents when quoting folks in the book.

I was underwhelmed by his performance in the Senate, but that might be colored by lack of good coverage.

I am now amused by what a southern drawl he is now sporting - while Hilary Clinton took a hit for hers. Listening to the 2004 speech really makes this clear.

What Obama is up against is his own rather thin resume. He doesn't have enough of a record for most people to feel they know him.

What did George W. Bush's "resume" look like when he was running for President?

I'm sorry, but I'm sick of hearing the same talking points over and over again. At least have the courtesy to make an argument.

Obama, he speaks like Hitler

I have this recurring nightmare of Farrakhan or Wright spending the night at the White House in the Lincoln bedroom. Or Barack Hussein Obama having a luncheon on the lawns with Hamas representatives, Ayers, Meeks and company. Lord help us. This life-long will also be pulling the lever for John McCain, a man who is actually proud of his country.

We are judged by the company we keep.

I have a very good picture of Barack Hussein Obama's kind of change he wants to make. I can't beleive that the Democrat party could want this Obama instead of Hillary. I would never vote for Obama not because he's black but because of all the anti-American friends he has.

Once again the DNC has come up with an inadequate candidate, Barack Hussein Obama is a empty suit and I don't believe a word he says.

I am definately voting for John McCain. I like him alot so it is an easy move. He loves this country and went through hell during the POW days.

I am one of them Sc.D. a son of holocaust survivor who witnessed results of 1930’s appeasement, I saw what my mother had to live through when she was in the concentration camps. She saw what is like when you cannot defend yourself from the Nazi tyranny, she saw her family burn in the ovens of Auschwitz and Birkenau, she witnessed the les affaires of the comatose Europeans Jewry while their fellow Jews were being shipped to their death camps, and the silence of the conciliators, she bore the numbers of her arms so we will never relent in our pursuit of freedom. Today I see in Barack Obama, he speaks like Hitler and hardly set down and argue like a human being, he bring an old memories that invokes the fears of Hitler days, he promised everything under the sun and that worries me the most. Hitler promised the German people everything and only destruction came about.


--- Leland Milton Goldblatt, Ph.D. ®
Distinguished Professor

Janet: While I'm aware of the 2004 speech, that's not what I was referring to. Lessig's blog reprinted his 2002 speech [] with some comment that I 'mis-remembered' as referring to a previous speech that was lost. My mistake. Please forgive.

Since when does a "lifelong" call it "the Democrat party"?

Michael H. Powell works for the New York Times and he started doing so in the winter of 2007. He worked previously with the washington post.

Obama is the next Bilderberg puppet. He will do whatever they ask of him. His candidacy is a joke. He has zero experience and record to stand on. The masses have been brainwashed by our Bilderberg owned media. Americans need to learn how to become anlytical thinkers again and not just "snack" on quick sound bites on the news and chose the rock star type candidate. The Bilderbergs know what they are doing and Americans are becoming less able to think on their own.

Scott: In answer to your question, I would say that those who refer to the "Democrat" party are those who have awakened and are beginning to think and speak for themselves!

When they suddenly discover that Democrats demand complete and total mental submission, that there is absolutely no room for any other point of view, they also realize that there is absolutely nothing "democratic" about the [self-labeled] Democratic party.

Just as one should be wary of eating at a place called "Mom's" one should also not expect anything democratic about the "Democratic" party. [I do not expect you to agree; in fact, you will probably not understand what I am saying for a good long time (if at all); awareness is not promised (some go to their graves without discovering the truth).] So, we will assume that you have zero idea of what some others have discovered.

This is the aforementioned Michael O. Powell of the Pacific Publishing Company in Seattle. Zzyzx, thanks for mentioning me.

I actually saw that a Michael Powell has popped up several times in the New York Times. Fortunately I've adopted the "O." as a middle initial, but some may still mistake me for him.

Michael Powell (the New York Times one, not me) also wrote a piece on Jeremiah Wright and Black Liberation Theology.

As for Obama being a "mystery," I think that that was true earlier in the electoral process but after two years of him running for president, it seems we have a pretty good idea of who he is.

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