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Monday, September 22, 2003

Photographic smears

Dubya drops BarneyA picture may indeed be worth a thousand words.  Or it might be visually stunning, attention-grabbing — and completely meaningless.

These two photos were taken in Waco on August 30, 2003, as Pres. Bush was meeting with girls from the Midway All-Stars softball team before boarding Air Force One to return to Washington. 

I saw the first of these two photos reproduced on left-leaning sites all over the blogosphere, usually with some insulting comment about Dubya.  The second, which was taken moments later, I just came across today for the first time. 

Dubya hugs BarneyThe contrast simply proves that when you are famous, then people take lots of pictures of you, and eventually someone will take a picture of you that makes you look cruel or wicked or stupid.  People who oppose you, and some who even hate you, want to smear your reputation, so they'll publish it far and wide.

Ted Barlow has a post up at Crooked Timber which claims that Matt Drudge and Robert Novak are attempting to smear new Democratic Presidential candidate Wesley Clark "on factually untrue grounds," and that as part of that effort, they're misusing a "shocking photo" in which then-General Clark and Bosnia Serb commander Gen. Ratko Mladic have traded uniform caps.  Specifically with respect to the photo (as opposed to the wisdom or judgment shown by the visit during which that photo was taken), I left this comment:

Whether Gen. Clark is more of an Eisenhower or a McClellan is still very much an open question, and one worthy of serious and thoughtful public debate. There are plenty of reasons not to take Gen. Clark terribly seriously as a presidential candidate, and even plenty of reasons to question Gen. Clark’s performance in the Balkins. But this photo isn’t one of them.

Posted by Beldar at 07:33 PM in Politics (2006 & earlier) | Permalink

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Comments

(1) Owen Courrèges made the following comment | Sep 22, 2003 10:53:52 PM | Permalink

William,

I've written a response to this post on Kevin Whited's group blog, Reductio ad Absurdum. Basically, I argue that the photo itself was a national embarassment in 1994, and is thus worthy of criticism. Posing for the photo displayed very bad political judgment, as did going against the State Department to meet with a known war criminal.

(2) Beldar made the following comment | Sep 23, 2003 12:00:59 AM | Permalink

Mr. Courrèges, I'm not "defending Clark" by any stretch of the imagination. Indeed, I don't disagree that Gen. Clark's decision to meet with Mlavic showed poor judgment.

But that he allowed the photo to be taken does not meaningfully add to that conclusion. If you're going to have a meeting, there are going to be photographers there. If you're going to have dialog, there will be moments when, presumably, you will not have a snarl on your face and your fists clenched. Clark probably made a instant judgment as to whether he could snatch his own hat back without creating an international incident, and concluded that he couldn't. In comparison to the decision to show up for the meeting in the first place, that's an absolutely trivial exercise of judgment. Which to me means the photo, in and of itself, is a trivial piece of data in evaluating his judgment.

And to suggest — as someone did in comments to the Crooked Timber post that originally prompted my comment there — that this photo establishes that Mlavic and Clark were "pals" is just silly. It's trying to use the photo to do too much — trying to use the photo for its visceral and emotional effect as a substitute for actual facts that have objective persuasive value.

I just finished reading Roy Jenkins' long biography of Churchill. One of its most interesting parts was Jenkins' discussions of Churchill's many attempts during WW2 to use "personal diplomacy" on Joseph Stalin — a world-class war criminal in comparison to whom Mladic is an inconsequential small-time hood. I had of course heard before the famous line Churchill used to justify his cozying up to Stalin during the war — "If Hitler invaded Hell, I would at least make a favorable reference to the Devil in the House of Commons" — but I had not previously realized the extent to which Churchill's sharing of confidential information despite American objections, for instance, had scandalized both the Americans and Churchill's own Conservative colleagues. Did he get too cozy? It's an interesting question, and I was glad to learn more salient facts that could go into the stew for consideration.

But the fact that Winston Churchill had his picture taken, smiling, with Joseph Stalin on several occasions is just meaningless. And if someone were to point to one of those many pictures and say that it proves anything meaningful about Winston Churchill being a "Communist sympathizer," or a "fellow traveler," I'd simply laugh at the foolishness.

I didn't vote for GHW Bush in 1988 because Michael Dukakis looked funny in the tanker helmet. I didn't vote for Dubya in 2000 because Madeline Albright had her photo snapped toasting Kim Jong Il. I had better reasons to conclude that Michael Dukakis would have gutted the US military and that Bill Clinton's State Department had made a shambles of negotiations with North Korea. I likewise have better reasons for drawing conclusions about Gen. Clark — conclusions that probably aren't far from yours, Mr. Courrèges — than how he looks wearing Mlavic's cap.

Mlavic wanted people to react viscerally to the spectacle of Gen. Clark wearing his hat and vice versa. He was manipulating the press for the most cynical of purposes, with considerable success, through the power of photography.

I'm just resisting being manipulated, thanks — in either direction.

(3) Owen Courrèges made the following comment | Sep 23, 2003 12:14:48 AM | Permalink

William,

I don't think the photo is as trivial as you say. It isn't as if Clark had his hat stolen by Mladic, and then was faced with the decision of either snatching it back or staging a photo-op. He made a conscious decision to pose for the photograph, which greatly exacerbated the embarassment his visit caused. Clark didn't have to look angry with Mladic the entire time, but neither did he have to appear in propoganda photos looking like chums.

Granted, the larger issue is the wisdom of his visit, but the photo isn't irrelevant. Not only is it a record of the visit, it's also a bad decision by itself.

I also don't think the comparisons you make are quite valid. Sure, we had an alliance of convenience with Stalin, and so Allied leaders have had their pictures taken with Stalin. However, we weren't allied with Mladic -- we saw him as a disgusting war criminal whose interests were opposed to our own. It's easier to overlook the propoganda value Stalin received by toasting with Churchill than it is to overlook Clark meeting with Mladvic against the wishes of the State Department.

In short, it would have been much easier for the global community to ignore the meeting if Clark had avoided being photographed like that. It compounded the initial error.

(4) LazyMF made the following comment | Sep 24, 2003 11:08:21 AM | Permalink

How did Clinton's State Department make a shambles of North Korean diplomacy? The jury is still out on the best way to handle a tin pot dictator with a nuk-u-lar arsenal. Bush's State Department is handling the matter in a totally different way than Clinton did, but it is too early to say Clinton was a failure and Bush is a success.

There is something to be said for a blend of carrot and stick like Clinton was pursuing. That method helped bring down the Iron Curtain at the time of the end game. Bush's method of stick only has no recent track record of success (for example, Cuba). I would rather bite the bullet of barely proping-up the North Korean regime and letting it die its natural (monitored) death rather than backing them into a corner, lighting the fuse and getting away.

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