February 2, 2005

Back on the Homefront

Now that the war in Iraq has supposedly ended again, the stage is set for the resumption of major domestic political combat.  Interestingly, three different photos appeared in yesterday’s front page section of the NYTimes which, as a group, form a snapshot of the battlefield.

This first pic, which appeared on page A6, was part of a front page article about political strategy in the aftermath of the Iraqi election.  In the photo, Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid challenge Bush to lay out specific parameters for withdrawing from Iraq. 


The second shot, which appeared on page A14, shows Howard Dean at a forum last week involving his bid to become the next national Democratic chairperson. 


The third shot, which was photographed during a ceremony in which with Bush swore in new Education Secretary Margaret Spellings, contains various faces that need no introduction (which already says something about how the political contest shapes up).


It’s noteworthy the paper ran photos of two separate Democratic events but just the one Republican gathering.  (You know something’s wrong when the only way for the media to cover your party’s leadership is to make a collage.)

Before looking at the inter-party dynamics in these photos, I wanted to mention some observable intraparty tensions. 

Howard Dean might raise a hornet’s nest of controversy as a potential party head, but you can’t deny the assets he offers, especially in relation to photo #1.  Just compare Dean to Reid.  Literally, they are mirror opposites.  The Dean image connotes strength, directness, extension, contact and foreground.  The read on Reid, on the other hand is… well…. who knows where Reid is.  (I guess he’s where the Democratic party is.)

In comparison to Reid, the problem with Pelosi is that she’s too much his opposite.  Having followed her for some time, I just cringe over how frenetic and inarticulate she tends to be.  For example, compare the shot of her with the shot below, of Laura Bush.  If you’ve been following the BAG, you know I think Laura’s self containment is pathological.  Still, as a political figure, she has a masterful grasp of the relationship between presentation and perception.  In comparison, Pelosi is all over the place.

Anyway, so much for the Democrats versus themselves.

In comparing this Blue State bunch to the Republican “A” Team, what’s fascinating is the orientation of the players to the camera.  In the two Democratic shots, the subjects are captured in profile, which makes the relationship to the viewer naturally more impersonal.  The Republican shot is also a profile.  In fact, because it’s a side view of an audience, this image carries with it a firm expectation of impersonality.  This makes it that much more dramatic that the subjects break the rule.  Unconsciously, it has got to feel flattering when Laura and Karl direct their attention our way rather than attending to the President. 

Which brings up still another reason why the Democrats have so much ground to make up.  Notice that, while those bumbling Democrats are going about their business, these Republicans can smell a camera a mile away.  It wouldn’t matter if the Pope was on that stage, or even Jesus Christ himself.  If the AP or Reuters is nearby, these people know who to favor.

Finally, it’s worth saying a few things about the players and the composition of the Republican shot.  I know I’m contradicting myself a little bit, but if If you study this picture, you realize that not all the Republican’s are looking at the camera.  In fact, it appears that the man at the extreme bottom right is actually asking a question, and that people nearby have turned their heads to look at him, or in his direction. 

Notice the man with the name tag to the upper left of Laura’s head.  He doesn’t appear to be looking for the camera.  The same seems even more true of the women to the right of Rove.  Karl, in fact, has turned his head just slightly this way, but in more of a “listening” gesture.  Of course, Laura seems to be looking toward the speaker and the camera at the same time.  But, as we said before, she’s trained to do that.  There is one person, however, who seems to definitely be looking at the camera.  Yes, it’s Alberto Gonzales, the man who just spent his confirmation hearing for Attorney General stonewalling the Senate Judiciary Committee.  Alberto is facing a Senate confirmation vote this week. 

Knowing he’s the man of the hour, Gonzales’ expression is interesting.  With the wary wrinkle to the forehead, the slightly skeptical eyes and the slightly self-satisfied smile, Bush’s defenseman seems to have purposely set up a confrontation with the viewer. 

If anything, it’s typical of the way Rove and the Administration operate.  In the same way Dick Cheney appeared on the Don Imus show on inauguration morning to throw down a challenge to Iran, Gonzales looks seems to challenge anyone to get in his way.  Positioning him next to Rove at the start of this particular week was also no accident. 

The message, simply put, is: You can’t screw with us. 

(images: Jason Reed — Reuters;  John Marshall Mantel for The New York Times; Doug Mills/The New York Times)

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Michael Shaw
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