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.
In Part 1 of the Story of Polioptics, we found ourselves in a hotel function room of the Hyatt Regency Trinidad. It was, to be sure, an odd place to start a discourse on the topic of the history of presidential stagecraft in the United States.
But a U.S. President had just arrived in the Caribbean for the Fifth Summit of the Americas in April, 2009, and that hotel function room was the first planned stop on a packed weekend schedule. Remembering back to that first post, it seemed that before much more time elapsed in that overheated, overfilled room of hemispheric leaders, President Barack Obama, in one of his first forays overseas, might find himself in an interesting predicament.
Eight Polioptics posts ago, I promised we’d return to the place Jimmy Buffett called “the Island of the Spices” at the end of our story. Our story has taken a few tangents through the history of presidential image making, and still has one post to go before we conclude. The goal has always been to entertain, and perhaps teach a thing or two, about how leaders in general, politicians in particular, and presidents to be precise, hone their images through techniques of production and advance work. Woven into this narrative are many of the techniques that are passed down from generation to generation of political operatives. In Trinidad, the old generation of operative met the new realities of presidential news coverage, and the challenges and complexities of controlling the message in the 21st Century came into stark focus.
Let’s remember, for a moment, where the narrative has taken us so far. Along the way during the Story of Polioptics, you’ve followed the arc of one dinosaur advance man: the unique images that shaped a political aesthetic; how those images affect subconscious perceptions in people generally; how Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan used imagery to great effect; how Bill Clinton raised the bar on production; how George W. Bush elevated it even further (and perhaps a bit too far); how the Internet transformed pop and politics and Barack Obama’s rise along with it; and, in the last post, how Obama transitioned his mastery of the campaign into changing how the White House presents itself.
And now we come back to Port of Spain.
I was standing on the periphery of the Friday night Leaders’ Reception at the Summit of the Americas trying, along with the rest of the aides present, to give the 34 heads of state and government their space. Pete Souza, the White House photographer, stood nearby, his equipment in a protective “ready” position but not intending to make many shots in this less-than-regal environment. The “reception”—if you could call it that—served as one big holding room of presidents and prime ministers, a logistical device to get the honored guests and their security and staff entourages into a secure space. This would let the thousand or so other invited guests be ushered into a larger ballroom where the Summit’s Opening Ceremonies would take place.
But in this large holding tank of national leaders schooling among their opposites, some had a history of following their own current. One of them, Hugo Chávez of Venezuela was, let’s say, unpredictable.
Preparing for my volunteer stint as the president’s lead advance representative to the Summit—the fifth in a series that stretched back to 1994 in Miami, when I was working in the White House full time as director of production—I studied how more-recent hemispheric gatherings had succeeded, or not. At the 2005 Summit in Argentina, Chávez and soccer star Diego Maradona held a rally in a soccer stadium to protest the policies of the Bush Administration. Estimates put the crowd at 25,000. Addressing the outdoor assemblage, Chávez was full of invective. Maradona called Bush “human garbage.” It was, to many, a summit in shambles.
Now, four years later, we arrived in Port of Spain expecting, in one way or another, Chávez to once again take the proceedings in an unknown direction.
International advance trips usually begin about a week before “the principal” (in this case, President Obama) arrives on Air Force One. As the thinking goes among planners at the National Security Council and the State Department, it should leave more than enough time to iron out any details or potential snafus. After the advance work is done, and once the president touches down, it should be smooth sailing until the president is “wheels-up” a few hours or, in our case in Trinidad, a few days later.
That’s the hope, anyway. When dealing with the Venezuelans, it’s not so easy. On diplomatic visits like this, the lead advance person is often joined at the hip with an ambassador on the ground to attend myriad “walk throughs” of venues and oversee “countdown meetings” of the scores of support people including the staff of our our embassy in Trinidad, temporary added staff from the State Department, and contingents from the U.S. Secret Service, the White House Communications Agency, various other branches of the U.S. military, and so on.
In Trinidad, a career U.S. Ambassador — Charles Shapiro, a former Ambassador to both Trinidad and Venezuela — was temporarily assigned as the U.S. Charge d’affaires for the Summit. Charles is a superb diplomat and had seen how Chávez operated during his days at the U.S. Embassy in Caracas. But how Chávez might behave in this, his first potential encounter with the new U.S. President, Barack Obama, was anybody’s guess. Neither Charles nor I had much luck peering up the Venezuelan’s sleeve during the several meetings of leaders’ representatives to review the proceedings for the upcoming summit. Some might have preferred Obama and Chávez keep their distance throughout the Friday-to-Sunday schedule. If they never met, I figured, the trip could be labeled mission accomplished. It was a naïve expectation, at best.
It didn’t take long for President Obama to put a wrench into that plan. While I was sweating out the Leaders’ Reception, Obama played his characteristic role of cool customer. The reception seemed to go well into overtime when, as usual, it took longer for volunteers from the host country to usher the audience to its seats. The longer it took to get the Opening Ceremonies underway, the greater the chance that the two biggest fish in the room would pass each other, moved by the inevitable human rivulets that that always convey people through tight spaces.
At last, there was movement. A few orders barked at elevated volume by the Trinidadian protocol staff signaled that they were ready to line the leaders up in reverse alphabetical order and troop them into the Opening Ceremonies. (If you’ve ever watched an Olympics Opening Ceremony, you might have an idea of what was going on behind the scenes.) At the Olympics, young athletes will behave like young athletes. At summits, world leaders will behave like world leaders. Backstage, they like to mingle. Then you get their attention, line them up, and send them out into the fully lit main event.
When I worked at the White House, this was always one of my favorite moments, played out on a number of continents. There I was, in my twenties, playing traffic cop to world leaders — Russian, Middle Eastern, Asia-Pacific, Western European, whatever — who routinely found themselves on the front pages of the world’s newspapers. Depending on how much instruction you gave, how much choreography you orchestrated, and how you set up the press, the resulting choreography could create a compelling Page 1 shot.
But this was not one of those times when you direct the actors on the stage. We were guests in Port of Spain and this was not my show. The Trinis would have to figure out how to make the cattle call work.
In the reverse alphabetical lineup, Chávez, of Venezuela, was near the front of the line. So too, I thought, would be the leader of the United States. This could have been the moment that brought the two leaders together. Then, I remembered, Spanish was the official language of this summit. That put President Obama, of Los Estados Unidos, near the back of the pack. The Spanish language was the apparent road block standing in the way of a chance meeting.
If only it could have been that easy. Just then, Obama, from about thirty feet away, bee-lined toward Chávez. My radar sensed imminent collision. Few others in the room noticed what was happening. Perhaps they dismissed the notable moment about to occur, given that this reception was billed as “closed press.” Perhaps they accepted that national leaders, even of countries that publicly keep their distance, can often be cordial behind closed doors.
Closing in on Chávez, Obama extended his hand and said, without affect, “How are you?” Chávez turned — somewhat surprised as I saw it — and could only return the handshake. Their right hands joined. Obama put his left hand on Chávez’s shoulder. Both men smiled.
A click of the camera captured a sense of warmth from both sides.
It was Obama’s initiative, but Chávez’s photographer. No matter. It still made history. The technology that Pete Souza carries with him to upload a digital image isn’t the exclusive property of the United States. The shot was instantly uploaded to every newspapers, blogs and computer screens around the world.
To some, the picture signaled another stop on what was being called Obama’s Apology Tour. Dick Cheney called it “unhelpful.” Newt Gingrich said it “sends a terrible signal” about how the new administration regards dictators. To others, especially overseas, where the U.S. was trying to change its image after the Bush years, it was a stand-up moment in which America showed a willingness to put aside animosities toward its neighbors.
All because of an unscripted clasp before an anonymous photographer. The two men could have talked for hours and not made as much news as they did in seconds.
That evening in my hotel room, I replayed in an instant, wired way, the same routine I had done hundreds of times in the Clinton years, only this time it was very different.
In the old days, after a big event, I would have a few beers in the hotel lobby with my fellow advance team members, and go to bed, hoping for one of those nights when your eyelids close and it seems like only a blink before dawn arrives. In the early morning, I would throw on jeans and a tee-shirt and race down to the nearest news stand or newspaper box to see the verdict on my event. How did the picture look in the local paper? In smaller media markets, they almost always played it big, dominating page 1 and filling several inside pages in the front section.
USA Today was always around in the old days. Maybe they would have a color shot on the front page. And the big kahuna — The New York Times — how would photo editor Lonnie Schlein decide to portray the event? To get the lowdown, a call back to the East Coast was usually required. My colleagues at the White House would let me know how the images looked in the Washington Post and, because they always gave good space to photojournalism, how it played in the Washington Times as well. A last call might have been home to friends in Boston, to see how the Globe covered it. The Globe, which prided itself on its political coverage, often played Clinton photos big. It might take a few days, or even a week, to see how, or if, the shot merited placement in Time, Newsweek or U.S. News & World Report. When we did make the weeklies, the full-color glossy pics were instant keepers in the scrap book.
How times have changed. In my hotel room in Port of Spain, one Google search of “Obama Chávez“ showed thousands of hits. The picture was everywhere. It only took a few minutes for the cable nets to begin ranting. Within hours, the blogs started to weigh in. In the hours after midnight, the national stories of the major newspapers were posted online. Then the mainstream pundits took their turns. Advance work, that time-honored political tradition in which young operatives work for days to orchestrate one “shot” that’s supposed to tell a larger story — of sacrifice, of history, of citizens doing their best or leaders doing their job — had evolved into something I didn’t recognize. An event planned over many months was just feeding the media engine; creating a narrative for a few hours — or in this case, a few days — of spin and counter-spin. On that evening, the “art of advance” turned into an assembly line of image.
The next morning, as we walked from his hotel room, I told the president the shot had gone global. He was nonplussed. “I knew that photo would get around,” he told me.
I suppose that since that August evening in Boston, in 2004, when an Illinois State Senator named Barack Obama gave the keynote address to the Democratic National Convention, he had become progressively more immune to the highs and lows of news coverage in the digital era. What soars or crashes one day is often forgotten the next. New crises, or opportunities, take over the top-of-the-fold. How else could Obama endure the day-in, day-out marathon of performing the same political theater that now recycles itself every hour? Obama had been tinged by Mayhill Fowler’s recording of his “bitter” comments at a fundraiser, but he had avoided the calamity that befell George Allen, Gordon Brown and even Helen Thomas, when their ill-considered comments were caught on tape.
At that moment in Trinidad, it was hard not to feel sympathy for Obama and his team of young aides. Unlike President Clinton, or his staff, who often reveled in the historic moments of the 1990s, its tougher now to truly enjoy the wondrous journey of serving as president or working in the White House. In his October 17, 2010 story, “The Education of a President” in the New York Times Magazine, Peter Baker reported:
In their darkest moments, White House aides wonder aloud whether it is even possible for a modern president to succeed, no matter how many bills he signs. Everything seems to conspire against the idea: an implacable opposition with little if any real interest in collaboration, a news media saturated with triviality and conflict, a culture that demands solutions yesterday, a societal cynicism that holds leadership in low regard…
“We’re all a lot more cynical now,” one aide told me.
The aide that Baker quoted did so anonymously, and Obama and his staff may dispute this on the record, but I sensed those same barriers to success as early as April 2009 in Trinidad. It was very different in Clinton’s day, when the smiles and fun were genuine for many on the staff. Maybe the Obama team has convinced itself that this is what passes for political joy, but Port of Spain was not joyful, and it was only a two-day snapshot of the last 635 Groundhog Days of image warfare. The pace is too quick, the glorious moments too fleeting, the microscope too intense.
In Trinidad, it didn’t take long for the cycle to begin anew. Emboldened by the tsunami of coverage of “the handshake” — or because Chávez has a hearty appetite for press — the image duel amplified the next day when Chávez upped the ante.
On the schedule was one of several smaller sessions of regional leaders — the Union of South American Nations — at another nondescript function room in the Hyatt. President Obama was seated at the head of a U-shaped assemblage of banquet tables. Chávez was five or six seats away. The agenda for these meetings is often perfunctory. Everyone gets to talk, and then it’s over, the communiqué agreed to well in advance, with very little substance playing out in the room. Before the soliloquies begin, there’s the obligatory “pool spray,” when a scrum of reporters and cameramen, often escorted in “waves” — one from the U.S. and one or two from the other participating countries — pour into the meeting room, shutters whirring, flashes firing, video toggle switches always engaged.
In these sprays, a question gets belted out from the wire or newspaper reporters. The president answers, or tries to. Then White House aides in attendance yell “thank you” in unison and start the often physical act of flushing the pool from the room. The same cycle repeats for the next “wave” until, a few fast minutes later, it’s over, the doors close, and the meeting gets underway. It’s almost always a mess. Only a few seasoned press advance professionals can really pull it off cleanly. My friend Anne Edwards is a genius directing this journalistic ballet.
Those pool sprays are what often passes for “coverage” of a meeting between world leaders until, a little later on, “senior administration officials,” speaking “on background,” offer a “readout” of what went on behind closed doors. Readouts, of course, lend themselves to interpretation depending on who is doing the reading out.
Chávez, in Trinidad, didn’t follow the rulebook of diplomatic-media protocol. When the first wave entered the room, with cameras rolling, Chávez did something I had never seen before in a multilateral meeting. He got up from his chair! He started moving toward President Obama, not unlike the move Obama had made in the reception the night before when the press had been barred. But there was something in his hand. What was it? Should the Secret Service be concerned? There wasn’t time to react.
Chávez was showing that he was a master of one of the most important rules in site advance: props sell! In his hand was…a book. The title was in Spanish and I couldn’t make it out, but he knew exactly what he was doing when he thrust into Obama’s hands a copy of Open Veins of Latin America by Eduardo Galeano. It was meant as a gift. A gift-prop. Chávez and Obama both clutched the book in a moment of supreme presidential awkwardness. Chávez said a few sentences in Spanish. Photographers shot. Reporters scribbled. The moment was made. Chávez sat back down.
The next day, Sunday, I wondered if anything could get worse. On the schedule, the last event of the summit was what was billed as a private retreat for the leaders at the official residence of Patrick Manning, the Trinidadian Prime Minister. There were to be no aides. No security. Just simultaneous interpretation headphones that each leader could wear if needed, fed by a few select translators operating in a secure booth at the side of the room.
But nothing about this summit was turning out to be private. I could sense another photographic ambush. Somehow, I thought, the Venezuelans would figure out how to get another day in the spotlight at what was supposed to be a summit of equals.
Right before the doors of the retreat were sealed, I slipped into the room and ducked behind a curtain, into a small enclosed space where catering staff and few other stowaway aides had ensconced themselves. I waited, watching for anything out of the ordinary. Before long, I noticed my Venezuelan counterpart moving beyond our little alcove, making his way toward Obama with an English version of Galeano’s book. A gift was a gift, but I was done with impromptu photo ops on my watch. With a swift tug, I snatched the book from the aide, saying I’d deliver it myself. The book, eventually, made its way to the White House.
Should observers have been so exorcised by the string of encounters between Presidents Obama and Chávez? Should I have been so sensitized by rounds 1 & 2 of their diplomatic dance for the lenses that I tried to pre-empt round 3? The debate would go on. It was left to the President to opine on the competing images at a press conference at the Summit’s conclusion.
Q: During the campaign you were criticized by some within your own party for perhaps not being able to be tough on foreign policy matters. Now you’ve had this friendly interaction with Mr. Chavez. Are you concerned at all about how this might be perceived back in the U.S. as perhaps being soft? Already one senator is calling this friendly interaction irresponsible. And as a quick follow-up, if I may, when you got the book from Mr. Chavez, what did you really think? (Laughter.)
THE PRESIDENT: I think it was a nice gesture to give me a book; I’m a reader. And you’re right, we had this debate throughout the campaign, and the whole notion was, is that somehow if we showed courtesy or opened up dialogue with governments that had previously been hostile to us, that that somehow would be a sign of weakness. The American people didn’t buy it. And there’s a good reason the American people didn’t buy it — because it doesn’t make sense.You take a country like Venezuela — I have great differences with Hugo Chavez on matters of economic policy and matters of foreign policy. His rhetoric directed at the United States has been inflammatory. There have been instances in which we’ve seen Venezuela interfere with some of the — some of the countries that surround Venezuela in ways that I think are a source of concern.
On the other hand, Venezuela is a country whose defense budget is probably 1/600th of the United States’. They own Citgo. It’s unlikely that as a consequence of me shaking hands or having a polite conversation with Mr. Chavez that we are endangering the strategic interests of the United States. I don’t think anybody can find any evidence that that would do so. Even within this imaginative crowd, I think you would be hard-pressed to paint a scenario in which U.S. interests would be damaged as a consequence of us having a more constructive relationship with Venezuela. So if the question, Dan, is, how does this play politically, I don’t know. One of the benefits of my campaign and how I’ve been trying to operate as President is I don’t worry about the politics — I try to figure out what’s right in terms of American interests, and on this one I think I’m right.
You have to hand it to Obama for putting it in perspective.
As a boy, I read about the meeting between JFK and Khrushchev in Vienna. As a student in college, I watched on TV the summits between Reagan and Gorbachev. As a young White House aide, I was lucky enough to witness in person Bill Clinton convening the handshake of Arafat and Rabin. And as a dinosaur advance man, I played a bit part in the meeting of Obama and Chávez. Different stakes, to be sure, but each encounter brought big risk as leaders sought a return on investment for their outstretched hands.
Our relations with Russia aren’t perfect, but the Cold War is a relic. True peace continues to elude the Middle East, but we are now in the midst of a new round of talks. Will the U.S. and Venezuela ever come closer to seeing things eye-to-eye? Maybe not during the respective terms of Barack Obama and Hugo Chávez. But some day, just as we give Ronald Reagan due credit for opening a dialogue with Mikhail Gorbachev when many felt it was not his nature, future historians and commentators will look back and remember, with some respect and admiration, when Barack Obama went to Port of Spain and offered his hand to the leader of a neighboring country.
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 the final post:
Part 10: Homage to Image