May 29, 2012

Obama Reflects on the Fallen … and Vice Versa

Call it: Memorial Day meets Campaign ’12.

Hopefully, it’s just the campaign season, but I’m finding a vainness and appropriation in the Obama White House photos I haven’t seen to this degree before. Of course, the whole point of a Pete Souza is presidential promotion. Still, there was a more self-effacing quality and a lighter, humbler tone to the White House photo stream that seems to be in shorter supply these days.

The White House doesn’t release a “photo of the day” every day, but they are pretty regular. The shot above was yesterday’s image commemorating Memorial Day.  I find the image of the President reflected in the Vietnam Memorial overly serve serving. Rather then a picture venerating these fallen soldiers on Memorial Day, instead we see Obama enshrined in the memorial wall and competing for face time. And to top it off, Souza outlines the President in a ring of light which, as we’ve discussed many times, lends him an almost spiritual aura. Somehow, I doubt the White House communications people — having ID’d their stylish picture — stopped to think how much Obama reflects on the fallen so much their memory is used to reflect on him.

I offered another example of this in the talk I presented at the Rhetoric Society of America conference on Saturday. In that case, we see Rosa Parks as another charged cultural symbol used to cast Obama in a venerable light.

Obama Dearborn Rosa Parks bus

Rosa Parks

As noted earlier, this is neither a newswire photo or a candid one. Instead, it’s a White House photo completely formulated and composed on the famed Rosa Parks bus at the Henry Ford Museum five weeks ago during an Obama fundraiser with the visual press kept away.


Quoting from the talk:

The photo seems strikingly mindful of the famous Library of Congress photo of Rosa Parks you see here. Obama situates himself one seat further back than Parks relative to the historical image. It’s a move that reinforces Parks’ singularity, buffers the White House from the perception of presumptuousness and also lends some humility, the President parking himself a little closer to the back of the bus as more manifest in the White House shot. As for the look out the window though, Obama, unabashed, goes for the most direct comparison.

I believe the photo works as well as it does because of the subtlety of Obama’s racial identity — Obama being, at the same time, America’s first African-American president and it’s first post-racial one. At the end of the day, what Obama achieves with this brilliant White House rendition is not just an analogy to Parks and the watershed days of the Civil Rights movement but an advantageous campaign reference — even more recently and historically — to himself.

>> By the way, a hearty thanks to the brilliant and visionary Cara Finnegan, to my co-panelists, contributor Karrin Anderson, Vanessa Beasley, Jens Kjeldsen, and Christa Olson, to Bag Moderator Nate Stormer, to occasional contributors Cate Blouke and Michael Butterworth, to Robert Hariman, Cindy Koenig Richards, John Murphy, Dave Tell and Roger Stahl for making Philadelphia great. <<

(photo: Pete Souza/White House caption: President Barack Obama is reflected in the Vietnam Veterans Memorial wall as he delivers remarks during the 50th Anniversary of the Vietnam War commemoration ceremony in Washington, D.C., May 28, 2012. photo 2: Pete Souza/White House caption: President Barack Obama sits on the famed Rosa Parks bus at the Henry Ford Museum following an event in Dearborn, Mich., April 18, 2012. photo 2: UPI/Library of Congress caption: Rosa Parks sits in the front of a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1956 after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled segregation illegal on the city’s bus system. Behind Parks is Nicholas C. Chriss, a UPI reporter covering the event.)

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Michael Shaw
See other posts by Michael here.

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