The Great White House Jeans Caper: Updated!

So, after listening to endless digital caterwauling about how images don’t matter, and this is just nitpicking, and that all is well…

USA Today came out with a story about how closely the Pentagon is studying Vladimir Putin, right down to his body movements. This is one of those strange projects funded by the Office of Net Assessment, and some of the work is done right up here in Newport (although I have nothing to do with it, and am skeptical of some of its assumptions.)

As you read the original story, below, that I posted a few days ago, ask yourself: If this is how closely we study Putin in order, as the USA Today story says, to help  “U.S. policymakers seeking any advantage they can find as they try to anticipate Putin,” just imagine how minutely the Kremlin’s intelligence folks scrutinize every single image they can find of Barack Obama, especially at tense moments like the current crisis.

Over the years, I’ve written plenty of controversial things, and taken my share of guff for them. I’ve been called every name in the book, and had people call for my firing at least twice from educational institutions. (Ironically, the first time anyone demanded I be fired was from Dartmouth back in 1992 because I was perceived — I am not kidding — as being too anti-Ukrainian and too pro-Russian.)

But almost nothing ignited the outpouring of Twitter outrage I encountered when I did the most unthinkable thing possible:

I criticized a picture of Barack Obama.

Let’s back up. As we all know, we’ve been in the midst of a deep and serious crisis with Russia. (I’m sure you’ve heard; it’s been in all the papers.) In the midst of this, President Obama called the President of Russia, Vladimir Putin. And the White House photographer took a picture of it, as you can see here.

Now, there are a few things to know about talking to Putin. First, he’s a guy who takes image seriously. Second, he has a macho fixation, as do many powerful Russian men. Third, he is mightly pissed off these days over perceived slights to his honor from the uppity people of Ukraine, who actually want a say in their own future. And finally, it’s no secret that he and our President don’t like each other. Not one little bit.

So I saw the picture of the President, and I immediately winced. The picture of the leader of the Free World talking to America’s top competitor in his casual Saturday outfit was a lousy idea.

Hand on his hip, looking annoyed rather than angry, in jeans and casual sleeves…the whole thing is a case study in poor optics that projected a lack of urgency, a lack of gravitas, a general lack of seriousness, at exactly the time it would have been useful for Putin to know that we weren’t kidding around.

Dear God, what was I thinking. Oh, the outrage.

Basically, objections fell into three categories:

1. What difference does it make what the President’s wearing?

I got a lot of “oh my God, he’s in jeans, it’s the end of the world!” snark, even though my original point was about the picture overall. I tried to make the point that it was more about what he wasn’t wearing, but that was lost in the hysteria.

2. Other presidents wore casual clothes, you know.

Yes, I know. Bush and Reagan walked around in cowboy gear, Carter in his silly sweaters. Some of them probably wore tighty-whites, too, but I don’t want pictures of it. I had, and have, an issue with the picture as political communication, but I’ll get to that.

3. You’re a racist/hater/goon. (Or some variation thereof.) Those spoke for themselves.

I was sort of amazed at how dense people were about the notion of “communication through images” — which is not exactly a new idea — and so I lobbed all the angry, sometimes crazy tweets I’d gotten on this back over the net. Soon, after fighting with the Twitter Tennis Cannons, I went back to being distracted by the chance of an impending major war in Europe (and with a little spat I’m having with one of the fellows over at War on the Rocks).

Of course, I’d made the fatal mistake of noting that Ronald Reagan always wore a jacket in the Oval Office. I seemed to recall this from one of his chiefs of staff, and I assumed it meant when doing business. (I get it that Presidents probably hang out in the Oval in bunny slippers now and then, but that wasn’t my point.)

Bad idea. To this very moment, I am still getting triumphal ribbing from the entire planet (including my Harvard Extension colleague, UNH Prof. Stacy VanDeveer) because of pics of the Gipper in cowboy clothes in the Oval, of which I now have 4,928 copies in my timeline. (Approximately.)

Okay, gang, point taken. But there are two disturbing things that we can draw from the Great White House Jeans Caper, one about the President’s foreign policy, and the other about the President’s supporters. Both of them matter in terms of making policy.

First, no matter how much it seems a nitpick, pictures are messages, especially in a White House that so carefully, even obsessively, manages the President’s image. I was far less concerned about what the President was wearing than the message the picture conveyed, which to my eyes was something like: “Yeah, hello…Vlad? You’re ruining my weekend with this Crimea stuff. I’m tryin’ to watch the game here.”

(A lot of people pointed out that it was a Saturday, as if that were an important point. Here’s a pro tip, ladies and gentlemen: when Russia invades a European nation, you should probably assume — and send the message — that the White House is open for business, fully functional, and very busy, no matter what day of the week it is.)

Now, if this had been a candid, or if the phone had rung unexpectedly and Pete Souza had captured the moment for the White House official history for later, that would be one thing. I’m sure Presidents have gotten important calls in their pajamas, and had to answer them, and God knows we’ve later seen private photos that we probably could have lived without.

But that’s not what happened here. Not only did the President initiate the call, but the picture was taken intentionally and then released the same day.

Now, in a crisis, anything the White House (or the Kremlin) releases is going to be scrutinized by the other side. Every iota of meaning will be taken from the photo, especially if it carries the imprimatur of the Oval Office. It’s not an accidental snap by someone who happened to be in the room. In politics, pictures are part of public diplomacy, and the Russians had every reason to think President Obama was trying to tell them something.

Astonishingly, there were people in my stream who rejected any such notion, as if White House photos are just family albums for the American people. That’s plain dumb: the Russians take such things pretty damn seriously, and any picture like that is something they would assume is part of an entire package of messaging.

And that’s the part that worried me. Someone at 1600 surely knows this, just as I do. So who could possibly think that picture was a good idea? You can hold that picture up to the light, squint, turn it sideways, or fold it into an origami duck, but it’s still a picture that says — at least in the Kremlin’s world — that we just weren’t taking the Russian invasion of a sovereign nation all that seriously.

Who’s controlling that message? Are these the same people who thought Pajama Boy was part of an effective campaign for health care? Again, this is not a criticism of Pete Souza, who is a local hero here in southeastern New England. He just took the picture; someone else decided to put it out there. And that was when a picture became a bad idea.

A crisis is an intense period, in which everything matters. It’s a game of millimeters, where clarity and communication are at a premium. Putting out a picture like that suggests, at least to me, that there are people in the White House who after all this time still don’t get itthat other nations do not admire or respect American Presidents based on domestic style points. Whatever image we added to the President’s words that day needed to look as  serious as a goddamned heart attack, or we shouldn’t have released anything at all.

When asked what I would have suggested, I showed a picture of Reagan in a suit on the phone. That, I guess, was racist or sexist or something, so I then suggested this picture, from when the President spoke to then-President Medvedev some time ago:

That, to me, is a picture that says something quite different. It’s taken from a lower angle, includes clear symbols of the Presidency, and a look of confidence but seriousness on the President’s face. A far better image, in my view, but that’s just one middle-aged, male, Russia expert’s opinion.

So, okay, that damage is done. Let’s move on to the other part of this: the reaction of the President’s social media fan base.

Folks, all I can say is this: you’re all outdoing Richard Nixon’s soldiers in your protectiveness of your icon. I have never seen such brittleness, such insecure freaking-out about the criticism of a president. Or more accurately, about the picture of a president. When it gets down to the race-baiting of “we know what you’re really saying, Tom,” we’re through the looking glass; I was not only accused of racism but of never supporting the President on anything, which is demonstrably false, as anyone who reads this blog knows.

Even more interesting is the distance people were willing to go in order to say that pictures don’t matter, that images don’t matter, that substance really matters, and I was too focused on a picture of the Commander in Chief instead of his policies, and….well, anyway, it went on like that for a while.

But to make their point, many people sent me the monumentally awful picture of George Bush in his flight suit.

Now, if images don’t matter, why does that one matter? I’ll confess: I really don’t like that picture, and it hasn’t improved over time. At that moment, I remember thinking it was too much swagger, but that the Iraq war was mostly over and thus harmless. Now, it makes me wince, as it should.

But why can we all be critical of a picture like that, taken as a photo op after a war, but a mom-jeans shot in the middle of a crisis is off limits for criticism?

I think I know why. Because for some of the President’s partisans, every kind of criticism is off limits. Period.

Anyway, I let this drag on for a full evening, and then patiently blocked and banned a few dozen of the more obnoxious race-baiters, poor spellers, and doofuses. That’s more people than I’ve banned in two years, but I had to clear my timeline of all the gaseous racist smears and general mopery.

The reaction to my criticism of the picture was completely nuts, and explains a lot about our terrible state of political polarization: much like the Tea Partiers the President’s supporters deplore, there are people who so emotionally invested in the President that they cannot see any kind of criticism as rooted in reality. Just as the Tea Party conservatives are so intensely involved in hating Obama that they find fault in everything he does, there are people who find virtue, even heroism, in everything he does as well.

So be it.

But man, that picture last week was a bad idea.

About the author

Related