Reading The Pictures is dedicated to the analysis of news photos and media images.
January 22, 2009

Social Positions

WASHINGTON - JANUARY 21: U.S. President Barack Obama (2nd R) and first lady Michelle Obama (R) greet people in the Blue Room of the White House during an open house reception January 21, 2009 in Washington, DC. Obama invited members of the public into the White House during the first full day of his administration. (Photo by Martin H. Simon-Pool/Getty Images)

by Karen Hull

If it wasn’t obvious already, yesterday’s photo op from the White House Blue Room made an opening day statement. Taking time to greet members of the public, the Obama’s seem determined to create a warm, open and egalitarian atmosphere in the White House.

Perhaps that attitude is that much more noticeable, however, because of George and Laura Bush. You can understand what I’m talking about looking at photo ops of George and Laura, as compared to past first families, in one particular room, the West Sitting Hall.

WASHINGTON - NOVEMBER 10: In this handout image provided by the White House, First Lady Laura Bush (L) meets with U.S. President-elect Barack Obama's wife Michelle Obama in the private residence of the White House November 10, 2008 in Washington, DC. This is the first visit for Barack Obama to the White House before he is sworn into office as President of the United States. First lady Laura Bush took soon to be first lady Michelle Obama on a tour of the White House as the President and Mr. Obama walked along the colonnade to the Oval Office where they had a meeting. On January 20th Obama will be sworn in as the 44th president of the United States. (Photo by Joyce N. Boghosian/The White House via Getty Images)

This photo above, taken at the White House during the Obamas’ first post-election visit, shows Laura Bush settled into an armchair and Michelle Obama propped with a pillow and perched at the end of stiffly-stuffed couch. Laura looks comfy enough, Michelle not so much. Perhaps it’s a lack of grace or an immunity to resonance and nuance, but I consistently find George and Laura had only a small ability to personally extend themselves.

The photo of Laura Bush and Michelle Obama reminds me of this photo:

Meeting and Coffee with Supreme Court Justice Nominee John Roberts. Statement to Press Pool. Residence. Rose Garden.

Obviously, that’s just-nominated Chief Justice Roberts looking uncomfortable (and the president looking clueless) at a White House photo op. The power is certainly on the Bushes in both photos and the guest is at a disadvantage.

Contrast that with Hillary Clinton and Barbara Bush in the same room during Clinton’s post-election first visit:


Babs put Hillary on equal and comfortable footing.

Here’s Babs again, in the same room, placing her guests at ease and in the focal point of attention:

And the Reagans hosting the Prince and Princess of Wales in the same room:


Although Diana looks a tad uncomfortable, Nancy places her on equal footing (though that might be a problem itself if you’re dealing with royalty). The emphasis is off the “power armchair” and Ronald takes a dominant, though more benign position.

Here’s an even older photo of Ladybird Johnson playing hostess but giving emphasis to her guest:


The West Sitting Hall functions as a living/receiving room on the main residence floor of the White House. It separates the president’s master bedroom and living room on the south and family kitchen and dining room on the north, so there is some locational intimacy. It may, in fact, judging from the just unveiled portrait in The National Portrait Gallery, be Laura Bush’s favorite room:

WASHINGTON - DECEMBER 19: The official portrait of U.S. first lady Laura Bush stands on an easel after it was unveiled at the National Portrait Gallery December 19, 2008 in Washington, DC. Laura Bush's portrait was painted by Russian native Aleksander Titovets of Texas. In her informal pose, she is reading in a favorite place in the private quarters of the White House. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

It will be interesting to see exactly how the Obamas use the room (there are several sitting rooms and parlors on this floor) and how they set the tone and dynamic with their guests.

(image 1: Pete Souza/White House; 2: Joyce N. Boghosian/White House; 3: Eric Draper/White House; 4: George H.W. Bush Presidential Library; 5:; 6: Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, image 7:, 8. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

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