May 14, 2012

Return of "The One"?: Our Take on the Newsweek Obama "Gay Messiah" Cover

Obama Newsweek cover. The First Gay President

As Obama closes in on the Oval Office, a theme that has already been absorbed into the media mind is the McCain campaign’s “messiah” attack (launched by Team McCain’s “The One” ad). While raising anxieties about a President Obama’s exercise of power, framing Obama as an aspiring deity also works like a red cape in the face of the Christian right by flaunting the notion Obama somehow sees himself as a God, God himself, or, the son of God.

— From God, Obama October 31, 2008 (BagNewsNotes)

What was the phrase? Obamessiah?

Sometimes magazine publishers and their photo-illustrators are too clever by half. I appreciate the desire to visually punctuate Obama’s support for gay marriage (even if he was pushed on by him his “team of rivals”). I also get the pressure to sell magazines (and maybe try to one-up TIME for its viral breastfeeding cover last week). Still, crowning Obama the “Gay Messiah,” as Bag contributor Karrin Anderson writes:

“…not only plays on stereotypes of him as self-righteous and messianic, but actually runs counter to the spirit of Andrew Sullivan’s article. (Sullivan, though Catholic, has always heralded secularism in politics.)”

Even if inadvertent, this illustration picks up an Obama attack meme which was played pretty hard in 2008. In light of that history, and because the image is so freighted religiously, I can just imagine someone as astute about imagery and ideology as Karl Rove taking one look, sitting back smugly, and uttering: “holier than thou.”

The One McCain ad screenshot

And how did the theme visually cross over from the political realm into the media sphere? Well, this frame above is just one from McCain’s so-named attack ad. (I also love where the Obama logo emerges in the scene from “The Ten Commandments” as Charleton Heston is parting the Red Sea.)

Obama God Dem Convention Jeff Reidel

In its wake, here’s the photo taken by Jeff Reidel for GQ, taken at the Democratic Convention, that lead that October 2008 Bag post.


And, here is the AFP photo I offered in a companion post at HuffPo, the image accompanying an AFP story about Obama’s potential transition plans. With Obama in silhouette, the theological allusion suggests him harnessing an orb of divine light in his hand while delivering a gesture reminiscent of Jesus giving a blessing or sign of divine mercy.

Of course, since then, any number of wire photographers have gotten into the act.

If Romney’s campaign fails to gain traction on the economy and/or the President opens up a simply divine lead, watch for Team Romney, desperate for any ray of light, to lean heavily (especially in “those districts”) on the “Gay Messiah.” That’s not to say, though, that the Newsweek cover isn’t hitting on something.

Take it down a notch and instead of a messiah complex or an attack on arrogance or self-righteousness, the photo-illustration could also be seen to frame Obama as “the do-gooder” or “Boy Scout.” If Obama had been out in front on this issue, having championed the cause fueled by some moral fervor, the halo would make more sense. But because Obama has, for so long, been parsing the gay marriage issue, finally ascending to his conversion as a practical (and certainly, also a political) decision, the sort of shiny, cartoonish quality of the halo speaks to some disconnect. Perhaps then, the illustration is actually capturing an irony, calling Obama on the relative depth of his vision and conviction. He looks to the heavens but the face and eyes are less soft than circumspect. It’s getting the religion, but a little after the fact.

(Ending revised. 5pm PST)

(photo 1: Newsweek. Design Director Dirk Barnett/Art Director Leah Purcell photo 2: McCain for President video: The One . photo 3: Jeff Reidel/ August 28, 2008. Denver, CO. photo 4: AFP.)

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Michael Shaw
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