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“Oh Happy Day”

Screen shot 2013-04-28 at 9.06.07 PM

This past week marked the dedication of the George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum at Southern Methodist University.  “Oh happy day,” announced the former president.  And as is the convention with such dedications, it was a grand celebration of the past president’s legacy.  And for the most part photojournalists followed the script, featuring numerous images of the five living presidents collected together in fraternal solidarity, as well as snapshots of various library exhibits such as the dedication to “free people” shown above, or in photographs of Barney and Miss Beazley’s food dishes and the former president’s baseball collection.

The dominant theme for the library is “What would you have done?” inviting visitors to participate with interactive displays allowing them to second guess the president’s various controversial policy decisions, from the search for weapons of mass destruction to the handling of Hurricane Katrina to addressing the debacle on Wall Street, and more.  Ironically enough, such judgments were rarely if ever solicited during the president’s two administrations and when they were expressed by various publics (or “free peoples”) they were systematically ignored.  But it is of course impossible to visualize something that did not occur—and in any case is not featured in the museum—and so the best that photojournalists were able to do was to call attention to the glitz and glamour.

One photograph, however, broke through the veneer of praise and acclaim that dominated the day’s festivities, although it was not featured in very many places.

Screen shot 2013-04-28 at 8.58.31 PM

The prosthetic leg belongs to Army 1st Lt. Melissa Stockwell (Ret.), the first female American soldier to lose a limb during the war in Iraq. She is reciting the Pledge of Allegiance with the Bush family standing in the background.  Interestingly enough, neither of the former first ladies is looking directly at Lt. Stockwell, each carefully averting their eyes, while former President George W. Bush appears to be staring at her with a befuddled and confused look on his face.  We can only imagine what he might actually be thinking, but his gaze clearly directs our attention to her star spangled, red, white and blue prosthesis, an ersatz symbol of the personal and private cost of the war in Iraq that contrasts with the shape and contour of her remaining, normal leg.

We cannot see Lt. Stockwell’s face, but perhaps that is altogether appropriate, for while she is without doubt a hero and the cost to her has been inestimable, she is not alone. Indeed, she stands literally to represent the more than 1,300 military personnel who have lost an arm or a leg (with more than 40 triple amputees and 5 quadruple amputees) in Iraq or Afghanistan (and with more than 63% from the war in Iraq alone).  Perhaps this photograph and those statistics should be featured at the museum exhibit which announces: “No stockpiles of W.M.D. were found.”

After all, if a “free people” are truly to “set the course of history” they should have access to all of the facts.

Credit: Allison V. Smith/NYT; Alex Wong/Getty Images


“Oh Happy Day”


6 Responses

  1. Dave McLane says

    Such a truly great shot! Only my take is that neither of the former first ladies is carefully averting their eyes: the older looks like she’s emmersed (immesed?) in her own thoughts and the younger is looking at something on the floor. Their husbands look as usual: befuddled, like they can’t even imagine that some people come to have one leg missing due to supporting their ex-Presidents decisions. Even so, it’s still a truly great shot!

  2. Lucaites says

    Point taken. And more’s the pity! Though I think the key remains that they are not looking at either the Lt. or her leg.

  3. Rooster says

    Looks 2 me that Barbara is clutching her chest aghast at the sight, Bush Sr. is trying to gape, & Laura is, as usual (Hurricane “Korina” [sic]), blithely elsewhere in mind, if not in body. Doesn’t take a lot of thought as to where that boot should go, times 5+. Recall that li’l “W” managed to escape his duty even though a National Air Gurad member, that he could repeatedly ‘draft’ those in the Guard for re-re-re… peated tours.

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  5. Troy says

    He doesn’t look “befuddled and confused”. He looks sad, and obviously feels sorry for the injuries that is inflicted upon the men and women in service.
    Btw, Bush won Florida. The few votes for Gore that were left out were overvotes, and if they were real votes, they would have had to include the absentee ballots for Bush that was not included in the final result. So the end result would be the same.
    Rooster I know where I’d put my army boot if I ever met you boy.

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