The Story of Polioptics is a 10-part Web narrative based on a multi-media presentation — POLIOPTICS: Political Influence Through Imagery, From George Washington to Barack Obama — that debuted on college campuses in 2009.
As I polish this part of Polioptics for posting, it’s the middle of October 2010, about 631 days, give or take, since Barack Obama’s Inauguration. That leaves 369 to go before the 1,000-day mark. If there was a honeymoon for President Obama in the First 100 days, it was short-lived. Despite many accomplishments, Obama and his Administration have had to work hard for every good news cycle they could muster. If we’re well past the honeymoon phase, other observers might well offer other marriage-related metaphor to describe where we are now.
Seen through a different prism, we are only 707 days since that majestic evening in Grant Park on November 4, 2008, concluding a journey to election for a candidate named Barack Obama that traveled down a winding rural road and concluded, eventually, before a massive crowd in Chicago. In the last post, we observed how Obama’s campaign mastered the modern tools of image making, ending its quest achieving the goal every campaign sets for itself: the transfer of the principal’s title from “candidate” to “president-elect.”
Days after Obama took his curtain call in Chicago, CBS’s “60 Minutes” broadcast a segment which included interviews — many of which were conducted in the minutes and hours following that speech— with David Axelrod, Robert Gibbs, David Plouffe, and other key advisers. What they said on the broadcast was ‘on the record.’ Whatever else they may have said — to correspondent Steve Kroft, to other campaign workers, or the president-elect himself — we will probably never know.
Whatever dialogue transpired, it was probably a lot less ambiguous than what Bill McKay (played by Robert Redford) said to his campaign consultant, Marvin Lucas (played by Peter Boyle) in Michael Ritchie’s classic 1972 film, “The Candidate.”
It’s that same chaotic scene that might still play out after elections across the country a few weeks from today. The setting is the corridors of a California hotel, but it may as well be any other ballroom or campaign office where these discussions unfold minutes after the votes are counted and victory, or defeat, is acknowledged. In the movie, McKay has just been elected to the U.S. Senate in a ficticious parallel to the 1970 race between John V. Tunney and George Murphy. In the film, right after the final results come in, McKay peels Lucas away from the maelstrom for a brief, fleeting aside and asks his advisor, before the tumult quickly returns, “What do we do now?”
The image makers of the soon-to-be Obama White House had a much better sense of how to take visual advantage of the building they were about to occupy than Bill McKay’s team had for that just-won Senate seat.
Obama’s recruitment of U.S. Representative (and former West Wing staffer) Rahm Emanuel as his Chief of Staff is well-documented. Less known is why Pete Souza also decided to make a return trip to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Pete was one of Ronald Reagan’s official White House photographers and I have long admired his work from the 1980’s. I figured Pete had hung up his White House credentials for good when Reagan rode into the sunset. Then I learned Pete had followed Obama during his years in the Senate, capturing his journey in a coffee table book, The Rise of Barack Obama. The book captures the kind of intimate moments — often outside of Washington — that all but disappear when a junior senator becomes President of the United States.
Or do they? It was shrewd staffing to have Pete come back to the White House to reprise his old gig. Pete is, to those who follow him, a legendary photographer, knowledgeable from Day One about how the White House works. He is armed, in Obama’s day as compared with Reagan’s, with all of the modern distribution technologies that can share the unique, often intimate viewpoint of the president’s official photographer with billions of people around the world.
In the Obama White House, as never before, the official photographer would become a vital instrument of message projection. Today, Pete’s pictures are posted by the thousands on the White House’s photosreams on Flickr and at WhiteHouse.gov, receiving millions of hits. Since the work of Pete and his team is U.S. Government property, it’s available for any blog, like this one, to publish 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Here’s a behind-the-scenes picture taken at the Southhampton Recreation Association in Richmond, Virginia, on September 29, 2010, that was uploaded in the days before this post was ready to publish:
Images that may not be of interest to all viewers, but are of intense interest to some, can find their audience, making their way from the photostream to publications and people who want to see them. In a 2009 trip I volunteered to manage for President Obama in Trinidad, for example, we set up a brief meeting between the president and global cricket legend Brian Lara. I’m no cricket maven, but the Web is full of praise for Lara’s match-winning performance of 153 not out against Australia in Bridgetown, Barbados in 1999, rated as the second best batting performance in the history of Test cricket. I can attest from several meetings with him that Mr. Lara is a gentleman and a fine fellow. For the cricket world, it was like a meeting with Hank Aaron or Ted Williams.
Naturally, when Obama and Lara got together, a quick lesson in proper form for the batsman became part of the conversation. We didn’t want to distract from the global news of the president’s attendance at the Fifth Summit of the Americas in Port of Spain, but we knew that cricket fans everywhere, from the West Indies to the United Kingdom to Pakistan, would get a charge out of seeing the new U.S. leader with the hero of one of the world’s most popular sports. In the brief meeting, which was held on a patio at the Hilton Trinidad overlooking Port of Spain, no outside press were allowed to observe. None were needed. Souza snapped a quick frame and brought the digital image back to Washington with him aboard Air Force One. It didn’t have to be a rush job, either, but within 24 hours, the picture was out, picked up in newspapers — both around the globe and within Trinidad and on many of the world’s cricket websites.
It didn’t used to be this easy. When I worked at the White House for President Clinton, “photo releases” were much more cumbersome affairs, and were rarely used. Occasionally, if the president was on vacation — such as a Thanksgiving break at Camp David — we would try to issue a photo which showed the First Family in a private setting. The White House photo office would develop the film and prints would be handed out in the White House press briefing room for scanning and publication on the photo wire. Only on the slowest news cycle would these shots see the light of day, or newsprint. Photo wires, such as AP, Reuters and AFP, would balk at accepting the pictures, given that their photographers weren’t on hand to make the picture. They still complain about it, most recently following President Obama’s August, 2010 vacation in Martha’s Vineyard.
For anyone who appreciates images of real people doing real things, as opposed to pictures of cattle calls, the wires’ argument loses some of its punch. It’s also periodically disregarded by many newspapers, broadcast news shows and, most broadly, in the online world, which reproduce the work of White House photographers without prejudice.
The news photographers grouse against being ‘pooled,’ that is, allowing one photographer into an intimate moment for the purpose of keeping it, well, intimate. It happens from time to time, for example, when a president visits wounded veterans in their hospital surroundings. Under pool rules, the lone journalist allowed into the meeting is required to share their material with their colleagues, and competitors. The alternative to this arrangement is that an intimate moment becomes anything but, with photographers laden with equipment tripping over each other to grab what is essentially the same angle, an uncomfortable circumstance for all involved. I’ve been involved in enough of these scraps to welcome how White House photo distribution has evolved in the Internet age.
We get a much better view of how the president actually spends his day than we ever had before, as long as we don’t think of each image as an event, but merely a snapshot in time. Pete’s Souza’s slideshow of “The First 100 Days”of the Obama White House, viewable on Flickr, is emblematic of the evolution. Its 291 frames show private moments at the Inaugural balls; arriving at the Oval Office for his first full day of work; receiving a second Oath of Office from Chief Justice Roberts; admiring Kennedy’s portrait.
These are the types of shots that usually don’t surface until history books are published — if they do at all. Before Obama’s presidency, almost all presidential photos were filed away in the archives or presidential libraries, unlikely to be seen again unless and until a researcher makes a specific request to uncover them. As a result, so much history remains under lock and key. But Obama’s supporters and detractors are both better off for the ability to get this better glimpse of what goes on within the walls at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. With his photos, Pete is releasing the first draft of history almost as it happens.
Along with Pete’s work, the White House Press Office is moving the Presidency from radio to video.
The history of presidents and radio broadcasts is long and colorful. FDR gave us a large archive of Fireside Chats. Jimmy Carter tried it during the energy crisis. Reagan gave us a weekly radio address. (Before beginning one of them, on August 11, 1984, Reagan famously joked about bombing Russia, a classic piece of audio still widely remembered. The radio address – and Russia – both survived that blooper.) Presidents 41, 42 and 43 continued the tradition, with tighter control over the kill switch for the mic. Under President #44, it’s “Your Weekly Address,” shot in picturesque White House locales, read from the teleprompter and recorded in high def, embeddable in any blog to spread the message.
Beyond the daily hum of official events covered by the White House press corps, the Official White House Photographer and the White House Communications Office are, together, churning out an unprecedented amout of content — visual and otherwise — on a weekly basis. To keep up with it all, the major newspapers — such as the Washington Post , New York Times and Chicago Tribune , have created their own White House Web sites featuring reporting, blogging and multi-media assets. It’s all they can do to survive. They’re following Politico and its minute-by-minute ticker of Obama’s term. Politico blurs the line, too, between print and broadcast, providing, on-demand, the rarely-seen archival video of the White House pool, complete with advertising. In this way, Politico, too, is monetizing pooled content that was previously stored in a vault and rarely viewed by the public in full.
The TV networks are playing catch-up, too. In approaching the production values of the glamorized fiction of NBC’s “The West Wing” and the real thing, NBC News took a cue from its drama department, assigning 32 cameras and 25 producers to make a two-hour special: “Inside the Obama White House.” You can order the DVD from NBC Universal. Cost: $10.98, down from its original price of $19.99. CBS, not to be outdone, made Obama a staple of “60 Minutes,” with Steve Kroft’s interviews reaching 25.1 million viewers. And ABC got in the act too, with its own day of White House programming to offer it’s slant on the unfolding health care debate.
The memorable pictures always get an audience across the broadcast mediums. At the G-8 in Italy, ABC White House correspondent Jake Tapper blogged about this saucy shot that set the tabloids aflutter. Tapper’s post debunked the snickering as an example of how the lens can lie. It it didn’t stop ABC’s Good Morning America, however, from having a little more fun with it.
Now, well into Obama’s First 1000 days, the feverish interest in all things Obama, like his initial poll numbers, have come down from their earlier highs. We’re in the final weeks before the midterm elections, watching the drama unfold in key Senate, House and gubernatorial races. But it’s nothing like the froth that accompies a presidential election. Luckily, for those who live for politics, Pete Souza and Politico are pumping out content, and the White House is up for grabs every 1,500 days.
And then continue reading The Story of Polioptics. Additional parts of the narrative will appear every few days. When it’s complete, it will be archived it its own section of www.Polioptics.com.
Stay tuned for upcoming posts:
Part 9: Port of Spain
Part 10: Homage to Image