September 20, 2009

Obama’s First General Assembly: A Spittin’ Preview

US First Lady Laura Bush (L) walks past Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad  as she takes her seat for US President George W. Bush's address to the United Nations General Assembly in New York, New York, 25 September 2007.  AFP PHOTO/Jim WATSON (Photo credit should read JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)

Besides giving Mr. Ahmadinejad the sheen of legitimacy back at home, even the barest handshake between the West’s most popular political figure and one of its most reviled political foes could deflate Iran’s nascent political opposition, give conservative hawks in the United States even more to lambaste the president for, and send Israel over the edge. — from Obama and Ahmadinejad: The Politics of Face Time, in this morning’s NYT.

I had a fleeting fantasy last night that the media, in this new post-Bush era, might somehow choose not to reduce Obama’s first General Assembly meeting from a serious and substantive platform of world leaders from across the globe into a perceptual cat-and-mouse game between Obama and Ahmadinejad.

With all the substantive issues on the table — global warming, Afghanistan, Israel/Palestine, banking controls in the face of the world-wide financial meltdown — why does the media insist on reducing most U.N. and summit action to celebrity politics? Specifically, how shallow is it to dwell on whether “The Evil One” will succeed in getting his picture taken with, and thus somehow achieve validation by “The One,” or whether “The One” can successfully dodge “The Evil One,” maintaining maximum cred? (As a visual case-in-point, the illustration below … in much larger size … leads today’s Week in Review article linked above.)

Because Bush was really that small-minded, thin-skinned and devoid of respect (or temperament) for the diplomatic arts, the perceptual games and all the “cat-and-mouse” really did have some media relevance last year. You might remember, for example, how Bush did steer clear of Ahmadinejad, going so far as to exit the General Assembly chamber with the whole American delegation leaving behind only a note-taker before MA spoke.

You might also remember the photo above — of Laura Bush walking past “the evil one” in the General Assembly chamber, and even placing her hand on his desk (!) — on her way to her seat to hear Dubya’s address. And was this unavoidably “close brush” actually a snub (or a taunt, even?). And did the “evil one” actually come out on the short end, unable to avoid a quick glance at Bush’s woman before sitting through Bush’s speech without his earpiece on?

But then, striking a blow for grown-ups (more or less), you might also recall, in an controversial act of defiance in the face-of the fear mongering, how Ahmadinejad was in New York a day early on the invitation of Columbia University, not to validate the man or his ideas in any way, but to actually encourage some give-and-take.)

Anyway, when it comes to imagery, summitry and substance, I’m trying to keep my expectations low this year.

(image: Jim Watson/AFP – Getty Images. United Nations General Assembly in New York, New York, September 25, 2007)

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Michael Shaw
See other posts by Michael here.

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