June 5, 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.)

Post By

Michael Shaw
See other posts by Michael here.

The Big Picture

Follow us on Instagram (@readingthepictures) and Twitter (@readingthepix), and


A curated collection of pieces related to our most-popular subject matter.


Comments Powered by Disqus