News Brendan O’Connor

Tuesday 16 September 2014

If it's all about the image, then this isn't a good one for Obama

We expect more of our world leaders than taking infantile selfies at Mandela's memorial, says Brendan O'Connor

Published 15/12/2013 | 22:10

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Even world leaders are fans of the ‘selfie’.
George Bush embraces Bono

IT WAS a defining moment in the infantilisation of the world, outshining even a man talking gibberish in sign on a worldwide event and no one appearing to notice until afterwards. It is set to become a defining moment of Generation X, the Generation who never grew up.

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It could even lead you to think that the Baby Boomers, as bad as they were, were the last generation of grown-ups. They may not have fought a world war but at least the baby boomers had some notion of decorum, or respect, a sense of occasion, and a sense of the formality that people expect from world leaders in order to feel safe.

Even Bill Clinton managed to have the common touch and an Elvis-like feel without generally compromising the sense of occasion or of the gravitas of the office -- with a few notable exceptions.

In itself the Obama/ Cameron/Helle Thorning Schmidt 'selfie' image is bad enough. Contrast it with another image from that afternoon and it's even more worrying. Dubya was at the Nelson Mandela memorial as well. And in the picture we saw of Bush the younger at the same event, he was sitting communing intently with Bono, his arm around him. And get this: on this occasion, believe it or not, despite popping a few shots from the occasion up on his own Instagram, Bush looked like the one with the gravitas. And Obama looked like the frat boy.

When you think about it, while Obama is doing selfies, the most recent images we have seen from Bush are paintings, paintings he has done of himself in confined spaces, at seminal moments like: in the bath, and at the shaving mirror. As terrifying as it is, Bush almost looks like a thoughtful person with an inner life, compared to the more extrovert Obama, who is increasingly all about image.

Of course, it didn't help that one of the other world leaders Obama was with was a not unattractive blonde. Helle Thorning Schmidt, as we all now know, is the Prime Minister of Denmark -- a left- leaning politician whose interests include her husband, her kids and her friends, and whose musical tastes run from The Black Eyed Peas to the Smiths. She is also a fan of the West Wing, so we can only imagine her excitement at meeting Obama, who is a real-life West Wing-style president.

How do I know all this? I know it because it's on her Facebook page obviously. Which is even more depressing than the selfie. Say what you will about Enda and Noonan and the other old men who run this place, at least they are not desperately trying to be down with the kids on social media.

There is an air of desperation about people's increasing need to take photos and show them to everyone. It used to be a standing joke about Japanese tourists that they walked around constantly taking pictures of everything, the subtext being that they weren't experiencing anything, just accumulating photos. Little did we know that we would all become that stereotype. You can barely go to a social event these days without people wanting to immortalise every moment, without them wanting to photograph their dinner before they eat it.

And it is, in a way, a sad thing. People clearly have some unmet need to be seen. "Look at me," they are saying. And then they count the 'likes' and get a thrill out of being acknowledged and maybe approved of by people they barely know.

And all the time real intimacy is sacrificed, the collection of small moments that make up a life is slipping by. If he were around to see this John Lennon might change his maxim from "life is what happens to you when you're busy making other plans" to "life is what happens when you're busy taking selfies".

But we expect more of our politicians. We expect them to be people of substance. And we also expect them not to have a burning need to be seen. It has been mentioned in defence of the selfie three that the Nelson Mandela memorial service was not a sombre occasion but a joyous celebration of a life, but really, is there ever a suitable time for three world leaders to be crouching in for a selfie? Indeed, world leaders or not, there aren't many people over 15 for whom this would be a good look.

And while much has been made of Michelle Obama's face as she sat on the sidelines of the japes, let's not forget that she is no stranger to the selfie herself. Seasoned Michelle-watchers point out that she is someone with a bitchy resting face so she can seem pissed off even when she is just feeling neutral.

But it is Obama that matters here. Having seen the selfies, how seriously then can we take Obama's earlier speechifying, when he stood up there in the shoes of Martin Luther King and Mandela, as the leader of the free world? However momentous that speech, if you see the guy afterwards taking a selfie with a blonde, like a teenager, can you really buy him as the inspirational world leader he was minutes earlier? Does he not just look like a guy who is acting?

But then, is that not something you suspect now and then about Obama? Do you not sometimes wonder if he is not the perfect world leader for this age of image and superficiality? He sometimes seems like someone whose presidency is based on a TV show, that they decided to take the West Wing and play it out in reality.

Of course we all want our leaders to be human, and of course it's nice that they are in touch with the modern world. But in a world of uncertainty and insecurity, we want to believe in our leaders too. We want to think they are better people than us. We want to believe that our leaders are men who sit around and think deeply about things.

People particularly want to think of Democrats as being authentic people. The narra-

tive is that Reagan was just a B-movie actor who had a B-movie presidency, and Bush Junior was a jackass playing rather unsuccessfully at being a president. But Obama is supposedly a real person, a sword of truth. The real truth is that someone wrote that speech for Obama and he had practised acting it out loads of times, so it was no big deal for him, and he was happy to lark about afterwards.

In reality, as much as we believe that Obama is better than us, or better than our own politicians, who value a photo op over anything else, he is just a mere man. And his wife might agree that he is somewhat of a dumbass of a man sometimes.

Irish Independent

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