News & Views from 465 California Street

Pop President?

Clint Reilly

In the days before President Obama’s inauguration, with the U.S. economy engulfed in flames and two wars simmering abroad,   one publication enjoyed unrivaled access to the entire incoming administration.

It wasn’t a newspaper. It was Vanity Fair.

Over the span of a week, ending right after Hillary Clinton was sworn in as Secretary of State, legendary celebrity photographer Annie Leibovitz shot photos of more than 50 Obama administration subjects for Vanity Fair’s cover piece, “Historic Portraits of Washington’s New Establishment.”

I found the photos puzzling.

Why was it in the president’s interest to have his entire administration sit down for a photo shoot with Vanity Fair while the country awaited his leadership on the worst economic crisis in 80 years?

Leibovitz is famous for such iconic photos as Demi Moore’s pregnant profile and John Lennon’s naked embrace of Yoko Ono. Where does the new administration fit in?

It’s “pop art” meets “pop politics.”

Obama’s cabinet secretaries and White House staff are shot against seamless, identical gray backgrounds. The photo of Tom Daschle – the now defunct nominee for Health and Human Services Secretary – is a reminder of the fleeting nature of both fame and power.

The Obama cover photo – taken during a 2007 Leibovitz shoot – has the feel of an Andy Warhol work from an earlier era. In Warhol’s world, familiar consumer products like Heinz Ketchup and household names like Jackie Kennedy are just brands driven by Madison Avenue and the press’s ravenous appetite for celebrity.

Warhol’s replicas of Brillo soap pad boxes and prints of Campbell’s soup cans made the point that there is little difference between consumer products and matinee idols like Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monroe. Both are manufactured by a constantly changing marketplace where fame is king; accomplishment takes a back seat to notoriety.

Obama’s presidential campaign thrived on pop images of the candidate with inspirational one word messages like hope, reform or change. Let’s hope the Vanity Fair cover is not a sign that Obama and his team truly believe they can bring real change with photo ops, sound bites and the cult of personality.

Both Hollywood and pop art love comic book heroes. See Superman at the museum or the theater. Or read about him in the newspaper. Californians had their own superhero movie in 2003, when Arnold Schwarzenegger’s glitz stole the show from Gray Davis. “The Governator” was supposed to clean up Sacramento with star power.

But today, Schwarzenegger’s fawning press coverage has vanished. Our gridlocked state government is in worse shape than ever.

Arnold’s bumper-sticker promises of post partisan reform have devolved into bitter recriminations from his own party. The state is locked in a financial quagmire, reeling from a $42 billion deficit and a deep recession.

Eventually, Obama will face the same mob that Schwarzenegger now confronts daily.

It is a reality in stark contrast to the exotic world of Vanity Fair, which provides nearly 350 pages of breathless homage to fame and consumption. Between glossy pages advertising the most expensive labels in our consumer culture, the magazine titillates with a mix of stories about sex and celebrity.

In addition to the inaugural portraits, the March issue features a vivid story about actress Marlene Dietrich’s dual affairs with President John F. Kennedy and his father.

John Wayne and pioneering director John Ford are profiled in yet another article explaining how Hollywood recreated the Wild West.
“The Godfather Wars” gossips about Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, Robert DeNiro, James Caan and Francis Ford Coppola. Another piece recounts the fall of New Line Cinema – a Hollywood movie studio.

But the bracing trauma most Americans are feeling amidst our frightening economic meltdown is far removed from the pages of Vanity Fair. Real reform of the health care system, restoration of job growth, fixing the housing crisis and restarting credit will require sustained focus and substantive solutions. President Obama will need more than one liners or one word.

Pop politics won’t cut it.

Comments (10)

  • You say: “Let’s hope the Vanity Fair cover is not a sign that Obama and his team truly believe they can bring real change with photo ops, sound bites and the cult of personality.” Of course they do! It is part, however, of a bigger picture. Like most previous leaders, perception, the image as it were, of President Obama is a product of photo ops, sound bites and the cult of personality. In years past, Life, Look or the Saturday Evening Post might have been the chosen publishing vehicle. The Arsenio Hall Show and 60 Minutes served a similar purpose for President Clinton. For President Kennedy, it was the live televised press conference. Vanity Fair was the choice, and a good choice, for this president at this time. Image is built on perception. His success, or failure, is based on reality. The problem develops when reality fails to match perception.

    Posted by: Allen White | February 17th, 2009 at 9:15 am

  • Oh No! Clint, you’ve gone after Vanity Fair? Why VF contributed to my sanity throughout the horror of the Bush years. Graydon Carter’s letters were spot on regarding Bush. Annie Leibovitz? She single handedly made pregnant women …glorious. I was 9 months pregnant when that cover came out and I never felt more beautiful. It wasn’t simply a celebrity picture. Annie is an American jewel. Finally what better way to help bring calm to a nation in chaos then for all of us to see who Obama selected to lead us out of our great crisis? Why, my husband and I were just talking about it would be great to see the full cabinet now in place..voila, our Vanity Fair arrived. Did you see the scathing round up in previous VF of the Bush cabinet? Was that celebrity gossip? I think not.

    Please don’t trash my VF and beloved Annie :)

    Posted by: melinda maginn | February 17th, 2009 at 6:07 pm

  • you got me Melinda …..but that cover shot of Obama was pure Andy …not Annie….and all those Washingtonians preening for the camera before they actually did anything for the country seemed ..well …so vain ..but Vanity Fair thrives on vanity …

    Posted by: clint reilly | February 17th, 2009 at 10:19 pm

  • Well, I suppose you could see it as preening. I saw it as..dare I say it? Hope and change. I voted for Obama and supported him vigorously. After years of watching a self absorbed and apathetic younger generation come alive convinced me that Obama not only had a message but a stimulus to move our country. I saw both the cover and the photos as another stop along the road to fulfilling the promise of his campaign. We need to know these folks, their backgrounds and what they will do. Seems to me Obama has hit the road running. Time will tell if WE are successful, but nothing about the VF or the article suggested Andy Warhol to me. But then beauty is in the eye of the beholder ….

    Another note…the Godfather article. I enjoyed reading about Coppola’s vision for Mario Puzo’s book. Not just a mob story rather a generational journey of one family and a metaphor for capitalism. There was quite a bit of history in that movie… pick up Havana Nocturne, by TJ English, a great read about how the Mafia (capitalism) fueled the Revolution.

    Posted by: melinda maginn | February 18th, 2009 at 11:59 am

  • If you are able to look at this from a more pedestrian POV I think the choices made would make more sense. I’m not ashamed to admit that if I was given a photo pop-quiz of Bush’s administration and asked to identify them by name- first or last- I’d fail miserably. And I’m confident I’m part of the majority. This was not due, by any means, to a lack of narcissism on the part of that administration. For 8 years this country, to me, was like Oz- not the singing and dancing, poppy fields and a multi-colored horses, but the mysterious man (and his team) behind the curtain who called the shots, the fear that surrounded him and his rash decisions and the effort and energy that went into the whole charade. It was a lot of smoke and mirrors. But as the cover of Vanity Fair celebrates, we have come into a new era and it comes as no surprise to me that Obama took the time to draw back the curtain and give the public a proper introduction to the people who will be in control of their destiny for the next 4 (hopefully 8 ) years. And let’s be honest- a newspaper is not the right platform for this. All the doom and gloom printed in black and white has kept me away from a newspaper for months. Millions of people- as Melinda pointed out- turn to magazines for escape. It was smart of them to remove the politics for a second and keep it personal, accessible and relatable. I think Vanity Fair was fair choice. In response to your question “Why was it in the president’s interest to have his entire administration sit down for a photo shoot with Vanity Fair while the country awaited his leadership on the worst economic crisis in 80 years?” – Let’s face it, if they can’t multi-task we’re screwed! Joking aside- I see it as continuation of the transparency and chivalry we’ve come to know and expect from him. I know it might take some getting used to. Show me some photos of the new administration in a few weeks and I’m sure I’ll pass with flying colors!

    Posted by: Adam Gobble | February 18th, 2009 at 2:00 pm

  • Your sensationalist view of the Vanity Fair photo session was a waste of good newspaper space; every incoming administration has their ‘official’ photo taken at some point in time, and the fact that this one was done by an “edgier” (translated “Hip?”) photographer is irrelevant; seems like it really got up your nose! I have personally received dozens of mails from friends around the world these past few weeks praising Ms. Leibovitz’s fresh approach compared to the stiff, impersonal administration photos of yesteryear. Yes, it’s “Art”, and what’s wrong with that? Art is culture, and culture is defined as human intellectual achievement.

    Your “Pop Comparisons” (Warholism, Schwarzenegger, Lennon et al) are laughable; as a matter of fact, the entire article is not just laughable but irrelevant! I appreciate your effort to put a pin in this new administration’s balloon, but it ain’t gonna work on me.“Pop Politics?” Bring it on! It’s new, it’s refreshing, and it makes opinions like yours appear pathetically behind the times. I suppose it’s no coincidence your PSA is in the IJ, a staunchly conservative fishwrap hanging on by a thread in what is considered one of the most free-thinking parts of the world. I subscribe for the local news, and if someone did that part better than the IJ, I’d cancel my subscription immediately.

    Again, congratulations on your waste of pulp and ink; now I’ve wasted too much time expressing my opinion. There’s work to be done cleaning up ‘The Other Guy’s” messes.

    Posted by: Johnny | February 19th, 2009 at 10:24 am

  • Congrats to Clint Reilly for winning the (so far) nitpicking article of ’09.

    Marin Independent Journal
    Pop President
    Tuesday, Feb. 17, 2009

    You write that “eventually, Obama will face the same mob that Schwarzenegger now confronts daily.”
    The mob that Obama has been facing since day one is the neocons and their quickly evaporating “base.” And Mr. Reilly appears to be just another sad right-winger upset that his mob lost.
    I’ll take a pop president any day, especially if he’s popular here and around the world, compared to the likes of Bushies and Reagan(omics) that landed us in this fiasco of fear and dread in the first place.
    In the meantime Mr. Reilly, go stew with your ditto-head blowhards until at least Obama has a moment to come up for air.


    Posted by: Greg | February 19th, 2009 at 11:31 am

  • Somebody a while back was interested in seeing you write
    about the Environment. It’s due time.

    Plus, it unites you with every single citizen, just like it “unites
    American with every single nation on the planet” to quote a writer…

    The Environment is one of the burning issues relating to our world
    today, and it is such a benign issue that unifies humans.

    No more shots against the press unless it matters and is a direct
    response to something unjust they did. Not all press are bad. Plus,
    don’t alienate potential voters!!!!!



    Posted by: Don | February 19th, 2009 at 11:35 am

  • Dear Mr. Reilly:

    I love reading your columns, and always appreciate your unique
    perspective on the events of the day.

    A couple of points came up for me as read your Pop President piece,
    and I thought I’d share them with you since you obviously like
    thinking from many angles.

    First is the role of Annie Leibovitz as the photographer for the
    Vanity Fair story. Having just finished reading her book, “At Work,”
    I have seen her evolve as a professional and move beyond just pop
    images. When she took the phenomenal photo of Bush and his team, she
    captured the leadership of our country in a way that no words or even
    news photos could show. Her photo of Queen Elizabeth was also
    revealing, and I think that world leaders who want to be “gotten” by
    their constituents know that Ms. Leibovitz will portray them as they
    want to be seen, not just stamp them as arrived glitterati. Obama has
    been so caricature-ized by the press that I think he wanted to
    reclaim his own “brand,” and no one does it better than Annie.

    As for his administration being photographed, I say bravo. I want to
    know who is leading my country, attach names to faces, see that Obama
    isn’t going to be an idiot maverick or do his dealings in the shadows
    with hidden people. Transparency and accountability come when real
    people are lined up with titles and functions, and I want to know who
    they are. People also buy in to people, and having Obama’s people
    show themselves as real humans is the best and fastest way for people
    to buy in to their agendas. Yes, the country is in crisis, but
    taking an hour out for a photo session so that those of us in fear
    can look into the faces of those who we must trust is smart strategy.

    As for comparing Arnold to Obama, there is no comparison. Arnold is
    an actor and a celebrity with no government experience, and Obama is
    a constitutional law professor, a wily politician, and a team man who
    can lead. Obama is famous, but he is not an entertainment celebrity,
    and I suspect that he will have more substance than glitz over the
    long haul that will keep the “mob” engaged in bettering their own
    futures and country and will keep their pitchforks and torches stored

    Finally, having purchased the Vanity Fair issue just so I could get
    and keep the photos of our new administration, I was, like you,
    amazed at the endless ads for stuff I neither want, knew existed, nor
    can afford. Perhaps despite Rome burning, people still want to see
    how the better 1 percent live either as an escape or for fantasy or
    to inspire them to work ever harder (or refinance their mortgages) to
    afford this stuff. I was going to just tear out the photos I
    wanted, but I decided to keep the whole magazine because someday I
    will look back on it as a snapshot itself of this point in time in
    America’s history. What I think then will probably be what I think
    now, which is that our unbridled and unsustainable consumerism fed by
    manipulative advertising was one the real reasons we are in our
    current mess.

    Thank you for letting me add my voice to your musings, and I look
    forward to your next article.

    All the best,

    Posted by: Monica | February 19th, 2009 at 11:37 am

  • President Barack is enjoying his moment in the limelight. Fame and celeb status is a powerful trip and euphoria probably, but i wouldn’t know. “The Dream Team” is like a bunch of smart kids going to Disneyland. Only they aren’t going to be entertained, they are going there to work as those actors and characters putting on the production for us. The main actor is asking us to be active participants. He too, is amazed by all this.

    This Dream Team is not much different than the team we sent to Beijing and prior Olympics except the stakes are much higher? Part of the Dream Team’s objective(s) is to again revisit our winning ways, part to restore goodwill to the world and show them what we’re really about. Our Dream Team Secretary of State quietly went about her way before any of the domestic skilled, big ballers.

    The press as always cashes in on the intrigue and excitement by covering the players and the game itself, like a sports commentator, and in many ways, considers itself as part of the Team. The quintessential fair-weather fan and critic, until controversy rears its ugly head. Then it’s about self-interest.

    But what do we know, we’re just a bunch of folks rootin’ for our guys, our team. The last team sucked. We want to see our guys and gals do well. They represent us. We voted for them…in a Democracy. We, too enjoy the feeling of winning and being part of something successful and larger than life, especially when it relates to life. What matters is the result…and the effort.

    The neo-con Radical Right Republican Limbaughs don’t see themselves as part of us. They don’t want to see our team succeed.

    Posted by: Don Nguyen | February 19th, 2009 at 12:50 pm

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