November 18, 2013

Obamelot: The Kennedy Mojo as Early Visual Juice for Obama's

With the reexamination of JFK on the 50th anniversary of his assassination (1, 2, 3, 4, 5), it seems a major thrust of the commemoration is to help parse man from myth. With the Kennedy legend further under the microscope, it’s interesting to also appreciate its contribution to the Obama “HOPE train” during America’s financial death spiral, including how the two auras visually fed each other.

You can see in these first three images, as well as the fifth one with Teddy (all Pete Souza photos, in chronological order), how the new White House mined that territory for the new and not-so-well known President Obama.

Here, for example, we see Obama riffing on thefamous historical Caroline Kennedy Oval Office photo. With CK doing her part, Obama reframes the Resolute Desk from a Bush hand-me-down. With all the humor to pull it off, Obama instead casts himself as JFK’s inheritor.

Obama Bo.jpg

The following passage is from a Bag post from April 2009:

Souza wouldn’t be worth his salt if he wasn’t also conscious, at some level … of how much it represented a color-, right-to-left- and an indoor/outdoor reversal of that tremendously romantic photo of RFK running on the beach with Freckles.

If you didn’t know, by the way, Bo, a gift from Ted Kennedy, was also a sibling of Kennedy’s dog, Cappy.

Of course, this could be a photo of Obama with any senior statesman. But he wasn’t. The bond is as evocative as it is powerful, Obama working with Kennedy on education policy as well as healthcare in the Kennedy brother’s autumn.


Finally, what’s as relevant was Obama’s Kennedyesque resonance, in his charisma, physique and rhetoric, in the ’08 campaign. From a May 2008 Bag post when contributor Alan Chin and I were doing campaign reportage together, this photo was taken by Alan the previous March.  This passage is most instructive:

Back in the cold of January, when Alan Chin was up in New Hampshire shooting for The BAG, he and I had absolutely no clue whether, come fall, the Obama story — still electrified at that moment by the post-Iowa buzz — was going to play out more like this or this.

Fast forward two months, and Alan (having spent another overnight on the lip of the Ohio primary, developing film) sends me the shot above as part of a basket of pictures.  Of course, I dismissed it immediately.  “And what didn’t you like about the Kennedy-esque one?” Alan asked the next morning from a roadside Bob’s Big Boy somewhere, I think, between Columbus and Cleveland.  And in phrasing it that way, he pegged the source of my problem, knowing that, as dramatic an image as he had recorded, it in no way reflected how a struggling Team Obama had given up the pep rally in favor of the townhall.

What I was referring to at the time was the decision by the Obama campaign to deviate away from charismatic, rock star-like rallies to avoid Obama being pigeonholed and dismissed by the opposition as some kind of phenomenon. Embedded in that equation (and manifest in Alan’s allusion) was the evocation of JFK.

(photos 1-3 & 5: Pete Souza/White House caption 1: On a tour of the State Floor of the White House, President Barack Obama looks at a portrait of John F. Kennedy by Aaron Shikler, Jan. 24, 2009 caption 2: President Barack Obama examines the Resolute Desk on March 3, 2009, while visiting with Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg in the Oval Office. In a famous photograph, her brother John F. Kennedy Jr., peeked through the FDR panel, while his father President Kennedy workedcaption 3: President Barack Obama runs down the East Colonnade with family dog, Bo, on the dog’s initial visit to the White House, March 15, 2009. Bo came back to live at the White House in April. photo 4: Bill Eppridge, June 1968. Oregon. via Google LIFE archivephoto 5: Alan Chin. Westerville, Ohio, outside Columbus. March 2, 2008.)

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Michael Shaw
See other posts by Michael here.

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