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The Public Face(s) of Power

I watched the State of the Union Address on Monday evening. If you tuned in you know that we didn’t learn very much about the actual state of the union. It was worth watching however, if only to mark the many psychodramas being played out (and to try to figure out which of the many opportunities Jon Stewart would take advantage). We make much of photojournalistic representations of hands and feet here at NCN, but last night it was the faces that were most interesting. And they are all featured in a slide show in yesterday’s Washington Post. I want to consider three of these images, but feel free to comment on others if you are so moved.

First is the President himself as he ritualistically delivers copies of his speech to the Vice President and Speaker of the House.

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The President sports his signature smirk, as smarmy as ever, as if to say, “you’re going to just LOVE what I’m about to say and there isn’t a damn thing you can do about it.” But it is the Speaker’s smile that I found most interesting, especially because it shows up so seldom throughout the remainder of the speech. It is obviously a practiced smile as she no doubt knows that the camera will be focusing on her, but in the particular context it implies another message as well, something like, “say what you want, but this is MY house big boy and no lame duck is going to tell me how to run it.” The stress and strain between this President and this Speaker is pronounced and real, to be sure, but perhaps more important is how the picture displays the character of that tension.

This is not just a matter of two leaders of a loyal opposition doing public battle for the good of party or country. No, it is a deep and personal enmity. These people genuinely dislike one another and they are not going to allow the demands of decorum and civility mute their mutual disdain. Note, for example, how both hold their stare, as if in a game of chicken. Neither looks to the envelope as he hands it to her or as she takes it. And note too how the President crosses his hands to deliver the envelopes with the speech in it, a subtle move that seems almost designed to disrupt the ritual and to suggest that he is still in control. That the Speaker is undaunted—that she fails to blink, as it were, holding the line of vision even as she accepts the envelope—underscores both the political game they are playing and the equipoise between two powerful individuals caught in a contest of will.

Only minutes later, of course, the demeanor and resonance changes.

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With the economy on the verge of ruins, the President decides to focus his attention at the beginning of the speech on the budget and the pressing issue of “congressional earmarks,” threatening to veto any budget that includes them, and more, announcing that he will issue an Executive Order that directs federal agencies to “ignore any future earmark not voted on by Congress.” Now there is no doubt that congressional earmarks complicate the budgetary process (though maybe not so much as, say, an extended war of occupation), but as the NYT reported, the President didn’t seem to be so exorcised by them prior to the 2006 elections when the Democrats took over both chambers of Congress. And truth to tell, as much as they are politically correct to oppose, they are probably an important legislative tool that helps the wheels of government turn—at least when they are not excessive or used without any and all restraint. But look at the picture which occurs at the moment that the President threatens his veto and promises his executive order.

He directs his remarks to his right, the Democratic side of the chamber. His countenance is serious and stern, his words punctuated with his pointing finger, almost as if he were in the process of declaring war. And, of course, that is precisely what he is doing, although the war he is declaring is on the Democratic Congress, not an alien foe from a distant land. It is hardly an auspicious beginning to what will be a year that demands a good deal of bipartisan outreach if anything productive is going to be accomplished. And then look at the Speaker of the House. Notice how tightly her lips are pursed, the corners of her mouth pulled back as if to say, “This guy is absolutely UNbelievable.” Finally, look at the Vice President who stares straight ahead, his eyes cold and pointed slightly down, ignoring the members of the chamber sitting in front of him and to his right, as well as the Speaker to his left. Here, it would seem, we have the guy who is really calling the shots, but who doesn’t want to acknowledge either the histrionics of those carrying out his desires, or those who might appeal for moderation. Indeed, his pose is the very model of the tunnel vision that might well be emblematic of the current administration. The photograph, in short, is another picture of the face of power in Washington these days, and once again it underscores the animosities that seem to be stifling any kind of effective political deliberations in our nation’s capitol right now.

The final image that I want to feature is of the audience listening to the address.

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We are looking at the Democratic side of the aisle and the face that stands out belongs to Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, sitting just to the left of center (no pun intended) and wearing bright red. She stares straight ahead and the look on her face is stately if not actually stoic. As one of the front runners for the Democratic nomination she is obviously “on stage” and no doubt she performs the decorous countenance of one who is seriously engaged with the speech. But what really caught my attention were those surrounding her. Notice how many of them seem bored or distracted, with some reading from what I assume is a transcript of the speech, perhaps looking ahead to see if maybe it comes out better than they anticipate. But most interesting is the Senator sitting just to the left of Clinton. It appears to be Joe Biden. No longer a candidate for his party’s nomination the motivation to be constantly “on” for the camera is lessened, and here we catch him in a less than stately pose, as he rubs his eyes as if to keep himself awake (or maybe to clear his vision because he can’t believe what he is witnessing). And indeed, if one were to listen closely enough I wouldn’t be surprised if they could hear him saying, “wake me when this is over.”

Eyes may well be the windows to the soul, but in the political world it is one’s public face that seems to tell the story. And, of course, there are many stories to be told. We only have to look to see them.

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The Public Face(s) of Power

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