Four men sat at a table drinking beer–the most photographed beer in the world. That is pretty much all there is to say, which is just how President Barack Obama wants it.
Across the Rose Garden lawn, on a small landing outside the Oval Office, White House Spokesman Robert Gibbs and Vice Presidential Spokesman Jay Carney stood there grinning, as content as cats in a windowsill watching the dozens of photographers and scribblers scramble for a few seconds to document the visual contrivance. It was, let history note, a public relations coup, a photo-op to beat all photo-ops. The two combatants in a confrontation that roiled the nation, raising unresolved issues of race, class and police power, were shown to sit together with the nation’s political leaders. Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., Cambridge Police Sgt. James Crowley, Vice President Joe Biden, Obama and four glasses of beer. That was all, save some peanuts. Never mind the complex issues. Never mind the question of resolution. Never mind what they said.
The press had been warned not to expect any substance. It has been conditioned to swallow its pride. Forty feet away for 40 seconds, the media was told to expect at one point during the day. That was later changed to 50 feet away for 30 seconds, much too far to shout a question or hear the genial mumblings of the men pretending that they were not being watched like penguins in a zoo pool. Would Gates and Crowley hash out the factual disputes of the accounts of their arrest? Would Crowley apologize as Gates had demanded? Would the president, in any way, do anything to make what he called “a teachable moment” in some way educational?
No. Gates and Crowley plan to meet again in the coming weeks to deal with the actual dispute. In the meantime, the photo was all politics, an image of four men at a table drinking beer, a symbol instead of something real. The beer was important because it stood in for the substance. “What happened?” your coworker will ask at the water cooler. “They had a beer,” you will say. As the comedian Stephen Colbert observed after the darkest days of the previous presidency, “No matter what happens to America, she will always rebound–with the most powerfully staged photo ops in the world.” So it was, again.
The photo op can be a particularly nefarious beast for a healthy democracy, where issues are supposed to be resolved through debate and transparency. It inevitably tells a fiction, not an entirely false one–they really did sit there drinking beer at a table–but something entirely contrived to look uncontrived. Consider the dozens of journalists milling about a few dozen feet away, the aides herding them like cattle. The four men pretended it wasn’t happening. Obama snuck some peanuts. Biden cracked a smile. Crowley adjusted his tie. Gates spoke. None did the obvious thing by acknowledging the absurdity of pretending not to be watched. None broke the illusion of the fourth wall.
Consider that the beer they drank had been chosen for its symbolic value. Obama sipped Bud Light, the top selling beer in America, with 22 percent of grocery, drug and convenience store sales, according to industry data. It is a beer so bland that it advertises itself by proclaiming its “Drinkability,” which is another way of saying its similarity to water. It is the safest beer the president could possibly have chosen, the stuff of poll testing and focus groups. Crowley drank the wheat beer Blue Moon, the unthreatening choice of a police officer with a sweet tooth, who is not afraid of a brew served often with a lemon wedge. Gates, who had talked up Red Stripe and Beck’s, finally chose to represent his home state of Massachusetts with a locally-brewed Samuel Adams Light. The vice president, who does not drink alcohol, sent a message to the kids, nursing a non-alcoholic Buckler.
But then this is just how it goes with the photo op. The nothing replaces the something. The beer becomes the thing. Before the press was led out to the lawn, its distinguished members talked amongst themselves in the briefing room, marveling at their own ability to be manipulated and the fate of their professional souls. Both MSNBC and CNN had posted countdown clocks to the beer picture (or at least the scheduled time of the beer picture), as if this was a thing worth counting down. For days, White House daily briefings had been consumed by questions of beer. It had long become embarrassing. So the press had made a joke of it. Ha. Ha. What a farce.
After a while, it was difficult to remember the thing that the photo-op had been designed to replace. The arrest of Gates had been one thing, the result of a confusion and a confrontation in a nice Cambridge home. Then President Obama, the first black man in the White House, had taken sides in the dispute, saying the Crowley had “acted stupidly.” This was a surprising violation of Obama’s carefully crafted pose on matters of national division. It is Obama’s habit to rise above disputes, to mediate, to find common ground, to project a post-tribal vision of America and himself, with a white mother and a black father. At a press conference last week, he instead was identifying with one party, the black Harvard man, calling Gates a “friend” and noting “I may be a little biased here.” He described the incident as a possible case of “racial profiling.” He spoke of blacks and Hispanics who get picked up by the police for “no cause.” The president violated his own first rule when it came to questions of race by participating in old categories, instead of transcending them.
The solution to this blunder, in addition to a near apology a few days later, was to stage a photo op, which would again position the president as a mediator, standing outside of race and class and building bridges. After the beer had been carted away, Obama’s staff sent out a statement in the president’s name. “I have always believed that what brings us together is stronger than what pulls us apart,” it read. “I am confident that has happened here tonight, and I am hopeful that all of us are able to draw this positive lesson from this episode.” The president seemed to be suggesting that the two men had found common ground. But there was little evidence of this. (In a press conference afterwards, Crowley said they had “agreed to disagree,” and offered no apologies.) The more evident lesson of four men drinking beer at a table was far more cynical. When real dialog is difficult, and when the hard work of mediating disputes has little political upside, then it is better for all involved to pose for the cameras and have a drink.