A President and His Dog

Everyone I talk to these days is addicted to political blogs. We are all searching the Web for the latest piece of dirt on Ahmad Chalabi or Abu Ghraib, or the freshest political polling data. We trade URLs the way in decades past we might have traded names of obscure rock bands: Talkingpointsmemo, Buzzflash, Dailykos, Atrios. It’s as if somewhere online there is a Rosetta stone that will help us read the swirl of information, misinformation, and disinformation that is all around us.

This is, I figure, about as close as the Web has come to fulfilling its potential. Finally, ten years after the emergence of the Netscape browser, the Web has become indispensable. Not just for getting stuff—books from Amazon, DVDs from Netflix, airline tickets from Orbitz—but for digging up dirt.

Naturally, what works for us—the left-leaning renegades that were destined to turn the Web into a paradise of countercultural thought—works for them, too. The Internet is equally popular with fundamentalist Christians, Muslim extremists, and all manner of conservatives. As it turns out, it has no endemic politics. So while the Howard Dean organization was credited as being the first presidential campaign to build a base of support by using the Internet (and derided for fizzing in dotcom style), the White House of George W. Bush has become one of the Web’s most intriguing users.

I’ve been spending a lot of time exploring the official Web site of the presidency, www.whitehouse.gov, looking for insight into the inner lives of the people who live there. I am fascinated by the regularly posted photo essays. I find them very odd—as beguiling as Cindy Sherman photos. Who is this man in the pictures, the one who’s always pointing like he’s a Soviet-era statue of Stalin, or waving in lieu of speaking, or surrounding himself with multiracial clusters of children that function as photographic human shields?

I find myself watching the streaming video of Bush’s tour of the Oval Office again and again, mesmerized as he says, “The rug that Laura designed for the Oval Office captures the sun and helps make this room an open and optimistic place.”

“Do they mean to be ironic?” I ask myself. No, I don’t think so.

Then there’s the photo of Lynne Cheney presiding over the 2003 Easter egg roll on the White House lawn surrounded by a wacko assortment of storybook characters, including an obscenely overstuffed Easter bunny. “Are these people trying to be bizarre?” I wonder. Again, I’m pretty sure the answer is no.

And then there’s the Barney fetish. If you go to www.barney.gov, you will be directed to the home page of the president’s Scottish terrier. There is now a feature called “Barney’s Photo of the Day Archive.” You can click on a date, May 6, for example, and discover that on the day President Bush met with King Abdullah II of Jordan and apologized to him for the abuses at Abu Ghraib prison, Barney was hanging out on the South Lawn with his soccer ball. “It’s a humanizing feature of the White House and presidency,” explains Jimmy Orr, the White House Internet director, who doubles as a White House spokesperson.

A humanizing feature: somehow the dog, who is almost always depicted alone—looking as isolated as President Johnson during Vietnam’s worst days—is the soul of the White House. The president, on the other hand, is routinely shown surrounded by people; he’s constantly making physical contact, but somehow their humanity fails to rub off on him. He always looks as if he’s on display at Madame Tussaud’s.

Although the Bush administration is bedeviled by shocking photographs that it wishes would just go away, the White House Web site depicts a presidency that is seamless and placid, a pageant of protocol and carefully staged public appearances. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a larger or better organized collection of photo-op moments anywhere.

“Well, it’s propaganda,” notes Dan Froomkin, keeper of the Washington Post’s official White House blog. Froomkin directs me to a 1999 Nieman Foundation for Journalism interview with Pete Souza, an official White House photographer who published a book of photos called Unguarded Moments: Behind the Scenes Photographs of President Reagan.

Explaining the title of his book, Souza says: “He was such a stage-directed president—‘Stand here, do this, stand there, do that’…I hope that I was able to give some sense of what he was like when he was unguarded. I think he got so used to me—there was a staff of photographers so there was always one of us around—that I don’t think he really gave a shit if we were around.” One of Souza’s favorite photos is a shot of Reagan from the back, instantly recognizable from the shape of his hairdo, throwing a paper airplane from the roof of an L.A. hotel. It’s a completely disarming image—nonpresidential and distinctly human.

Who knows whether the Reagan administration would have put such a photo up on its Web site if there had been such a thing back then, but it’s interesting that the official White House photographer was nondogmatic enough to take photos that were not on-message. On whitehouse.gov, by contrast, every single photo of President Bush is the visual equivalent of a talking point.

My favorite feature of the site is that you can call up photos by date. You can find out, for example, what the president was doing—or what the president wants to be remembered as doing—in August 2001. On August 6, the day he got the intelligence briefing entitled “Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S.,” there are no photos. Too bad. On August 8 Bush is depicted on a Waco, Texas, Habitat for Humanity work site wearing a carpenter’s apron, his arm around a volunteer—a black woman—who looks distinctly uncomfortable. On August 15 he’s opening a Job Opportunity Center in Albuquerque holding a giant pair of scissors. On August 23 he’s fielding questions from Crawford, Texas, elementary school students. The intended message of these photos is that Bush was hard at work during his monthlong vacation. But it’s difficult to look at this pageant of forced bonhomie in retrospect and not imagine the menacing Jaws theme welling up in the background.

Then comes September 11, and the Web site’s archive spits out images of the president that were chosen to make him look like a decisive, take-charge guy. There’s no photo of the president reading to Sarasota school children as his chief of staff, Andy Card, whispers in his ear. Such an image might remind us of the long minutes the president continued to read after he learned of the attacks. Instead we see him in a classroom talking on the telephone as his advisors point at a television screen across the room. We see the president on Air Force One talking on the phone to—according to the caption—Dick Cheney; the president on Air Force One jabbing his finger at Card; the president back in the White House waving his arms at his assembled staff. These are the photos the White House wants you to see. This is the official story.

I could look at these pictures forever, trying to tease out the unspoken truths about the White House, trying to find that elusive piece of knowledge that the blogs never quite yield. Trying, but not succeeding.

Of course, the history of presidential Web sites is very short, so it’s impossible to say whether the Bush version is typical. However, Froomkin—a student of politics on the Web—notes that the Clinton administration used its official site to give the public access to all sorts of policy documents. “They basically put everything on it, which was fantastic.” (The old Clinton Web sites can be found by visiting the National Archives online at http://searchclinton.archives.gov.) The archived pages look quite primitive; although there are, of course, propaganda photos, there’s nothing as elaborate or insistent as a day-by-day archive.

The Bush administration has figured out exactly what the Internet is for. It’s a place to tell the story you choose to tell, free of meddlesome reporters and editors—and free of unwanted drama. Indeed the presidential routine presented on whitehouse.gov winds up being as uneventful as the lives cataloged on the myriad Joe Shmoe blogs out there—you know, the ones in which someone you don’t care about records the minutiae of his daily existence. Which is why it’s a damned good thing that the president, like so many of his fellow bloggers, has a dog.

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