September 6, 2012

Bill Clinton and Barack Obama: The "Empty Chair" in Charlotte Last Night

Brilliant, subtle, nuanced, on point.

Given the value of the real estate next to Michelle Obama, viewers couldn’t help but wonder where the president was as Bill Clinton delivered his phenomenal speech at the second evening of the DNC.  The space for his chair remained empty. Maybe the tension reported in the media was real, even though the White House revealed that Obama would watch Clinton’s speech “from the convention hall.” Maybe Michelle Obama was saving a seat for the man who wouldn’t sit down for Clinton, wouldn’t appear as a lesser light to the former two-term president.

Whatever the reason, for the second time in a week Barack Obama was invisible. The space between Michelle and Joe Biden was palpable, odd, noticeable.

Of course, Barack Obama dramatically hit the stage at the end of Clinton’s speech, famously hugging Clinton and shaking his hand. But in staging that empty space between the First Lady and the Vice President, the Obama election team visually managed the expectations of everyone in the hall and watching on TV.  It was subtle and brilliant. It was a dig at the republican schtick and it succeeded where Eastwood’s empty chair failed.

When Eastwood spoke to the empty chair he failed because the GOP was unable to give flesh to the man they opposed. The empty chair was only real because it was there beside Eastwood and it was vacant. But it didn’t work, didn’t resonate because it wasn’t based on an authentic image of the president.

But when viewers looked at the empty seat between Michelle Obama and Joe Biden, they looked for Barack Obama.  His presence was felt even though he was invisible. Instead of “what the hell is Eastwood doing,” each glimpse of the empty space begged an image of the man Clinton was extolling.  But the campaign team managed an incredible visual trick of playing off media rumors and expectation that Obama needed the Big Dog to help him out of his hole, to manage his image and make his case. The space remained empty: there were no images of Barack Obama gratefully sitting for Bill Clinton.  Instead, the flesh and blood president strolled out onto the stage at the end of the speech and received, of all things, a bow from his predecessor.

Nuanced stagecraft, but in a sea of authenticity, a brilliant dig at Tampa.

(credits: video still C-span, bottom photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images. Caption: Former U.S. President Bill Clinton greets Democratic presidential candidate, U.S. President Barack Obama (L) on stage during day two of the Democratic National Convention at Time Warner Cable Arena on September 5, 2012 in Charlotte, North Carolina. The DNC that will run through September 7, will nominate U.S. President Barack Obama as the Democratic presidential candidate.)

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Karen Donley
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