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December 19, 2005

George and Ted and Dick and Karl

Bush-Roosevelt

What’s the message here?  Rough riding on the Constitution?

In response to the NYT leaking the news that George Bush has been authorizing secret wiretaps of U.S. citizens, the President (according to a Seattle Times headline) “came out swinging” in defense of the activity.

As a backdrop for Bush’s televised radio address, the White House chose this 1909 painting of Roosevelt in the Roosevelt Room.  (Karl Rove had to be pleased considering almost identical images showed up Sunday on the front pages of the NY and LA Times.)

It would be interesting to find an analysis of exactly when and how often Bush has used this backdrop.  Alan Farber, a professor at SUNY, mentions Bush’s use of the framing to endorse a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage.  The Washington Times notes the setting was also used to announce the (failed) nomination of 9/11 personality and N.Y. City Police Commissioner Bernard Kerik to become head of the Homeland Security Department.

If you watch the White House Roosevelt Room video (moderated by none other than Rove himself), you get a sense of what is going on in this photograph.  As an added bonus, you can appreciate Karl’s love of symbolism in general, and artwork in particular.  When Rove comes to this portrait, he says:

I love this painting because it shows how the world saw Theodore Roosevelt.  He’s in his uniform as commander of the rough riders in the Spanish American war.  It’s not too accurate a depiction of the uniform apparently, but everybody around the world loved to think of Theodore Roosevelt as a rough rider, and that’s how he was depicted here.

In three sentences, I count two references to the concept of “depiction,” and two more regarding about how the world (cognitively and visually) came to prefer a romanticized image of a President.  Also sandwiched in there is a parenthetical comment about the inaccuracy of that image, with the conclusion that people will tend to ignore factual discrepancies in favor of a more emotional and heroic impression.

As No More Apples points out, the White House and Bush are endlessly fond of referencing FDR.  That’s because Rove has always fancied his “Permanent Republican Majority” as the successor to (and dismantler of) The New Deal.  What stood out for me from Rove’s on-line tour, however, was the fact the person responsible for the design and naming of the current Roosevelt Room was Richard Nixon.  The way things are going, I’d say Tricky Dick serves as a better comparison to Bush than FDR TR.

OK, so Bush is talking to us and not to the painting.  Still, it’s getting harder to tell who tops who in paranoia.

[Editorial Note: Sorry, I don't really know how FDR slipped in there....]



(image: Manuel Balce Ceneta/A.P. December 18, 2005. New York Times, p. A1)

  • gleex

    I agree with your point that its a stage for what he thinks his image can be. I just hope he knows what his image is, a bad president that will be portrayed with a clueless face and a blue suit with a red tie.
    I also think they really have to vary the backdrop since he has given the same speech 5 times in (what?) two weeks or something like that.

  • gleex

    Bah ha ha. I just saw the headline on Yahoo AP, “Bush candor draws praise”.
    What like saying 2 cajillion Iraq troops are ready for battle. Or that everyone is wrong and he is right and it does not matter how many troops are put in harms way until we win…. or perhaps they mean how is says not only are we going to win – but that we are winning now. Wow, thats some candor.
    Looks like the “liberal” MSM is cranking it up just in time to try and overshadow his order for domestic spying amoung other powers he has claimed as passed down from God or his Dad or a dream or something.
    As pointed out in firedog lake in case of emergency the US can already tap and not have to get a warrent for 72 hours, of course not even NPR has done their homework and do not even mention provisions like this that take most of the steam out of the Admins argument.
    Then of course the POTUS can’t even be visually truthfull, so to think they would speak the truth is a bit of a stretch.
    Hey I wonder if baby Bush will want his official POTUS picture (I wonder were that one will be hung) to be done of him on the flight deck in his POTUS flight jumpsuit complete with cod-piece.

  • ummabdulla

    I wonder if Ayad Allawi’s been in the Roosevelt Room; maybe that’s where he got the idea for his horse logo.
    I saw part of Bush’s speech on TV. Not only does he look and sound stupid, but he speaks as if he’s talking to a KG class. And I can picture a KG teacher in front of him demonstrating what movements he’s supposed to make with his hands with each statement.
    (This post doesn’t seem to make a distinction between Teddy and Franklin D. Roosevelt, though.)

  • Janet

    Dear Bag,
    Teddy Roosevelt = Rough Riders, “Speak softly but carry a big stick.”
    Franklin Delano Roosevelt = FDR, New Deal

  • Emord Nilap

    In the “Rough Riders” photo, all I can see is Bush as a horse’s ass.

  • http://ruinsofempire.blogspot.com/ Rafael

    Nice choice, having Teddy as the backdrop. Teddy represents the following:
    Bravery under adversity and leadership under fire. The Battle of San Juan Hill.
    Imperial Dreams, from the Spanish-American War to Gunboat diplomacy.
    The Cowboy, ready to tackle problems head on. The rugged individual.
    However, there are some diferences:
    While Teddy volunteered to fight in the Spanish-American, Bush avoided active service.
    While Teddy won a Noble Peace Prize for his diplomacy during the Sino-Russian War, Bush pushed Bolton on the U.N.
    And while Teddy was an avid outsdoorman and a conservationist, Bush wages war on the enviroment and is afraid of horses.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/bgrothus/ bg

    I saw this yesterday on the NYT and immediately knew I would see it here today.
    I am with Gleex, the official painting of GWB, the flight suit. Perfect.
    There is virtually no art/art history education in the US. The failure of Rove to grasp that practically no one will know anything about the painting, will not understand the imagery nor recognize TR, and why the public will largely misunderestimate the value of the photo to the White House. So while Rove may have “got it” the public will not. Most, like Bush, will lack the curiosity to even look twice at the painting or ask why this image was chosen.
    Teddy was also a bit of an environmentalist I believe, perhaps the national Park Service was begun under him? Anyway, the Bush use of him, like all the other false images they put forth, simply falls flat.

  • http://www.livejournal.com/users/vicfitz82 Victor F

    all the backdrops I see for The Monkey-in-Chief’s speeches are making me weary. The images you select for this site seem to point to a frustration among news photographers for the visual presentation of Bush’s speeches. This picture shows Roosevelt looming large behind Bush. The photographer gave more space to a painting of a dead president than the face of a live one. Especially on this site, it seems Bush’s fantastic backdrops get more space than the man himself. It would not surprise me if many photographers perceived Bush as being all fluff and no stuff. He is always trying to get somebody else behind his empty words, as if he (or his handlers) are terrified that if people saw him alone they would realize how utterly terrible he is when left to solo.
    maybe. that’s just my reaction anyway. I know pretty much anybody whose job depends on their image is going to pull lots pretty visual comparisons out of their PR guys.

  • http://www.johnsanterre.com John

    Its not clear to me that whom ever set up this photo shoot was successful in their attempts to quietly draw comparisons between Bush and Teddy of the Rough Riders on the back wall. In both the LA times and the NY times, the papers drew most of the attention to the background leaving Bush both diminutive and secondary to the background. The choice of F stop(to preserve focus) and the framing(to preserve the continuity of the image) were both intentionally handled to draw overt attention to the background and its relation to Bush. Subtlety was compeltely lost.
    And what was the symbolic reference to the uninformed viewer. Western cowboy imagery. Given the strength of criticism that Bush’s opponents have had about his policy refereeing to his mentality as a “cowboy” attitude, one wonders if this was a good decision.
    One could even make the case, that given the approximate millimeter of zoom, the intense lights of the room, the availably of on camera flash, the F stop could have been set to bring the painting into direct focus and thereby illuminate who and what was happening in the painting. Instead, the photographers chose to blur the image enough to draw a comparison with the cowboy imagery but without enough information to inform the general public of the exact significance of the image. (I don’t personally subscribe to this thought process, I belive that there are many more mundane editorial decisions that lead to this partial amount of blur, most likely simply trying to establish one central point of focus in an image that is heavily unbalanced)
    Lets us not forget two other points,
    The most recent imagery of a man on a horse leading his men to battle that comes to my mind is Saddam’s statue in in Tikrit(?).
    The second interesting fact is one that Rover points out in the video. Traditionally(or at least at one point) below the image or Roosevelt stood the first Nobel Peace Prize awarded to an American. The same Theodore Roosevelt that stands tall and aggressive mediated peace in the Russo-Japanese War. Not only is it of less importance to Rove as he discusses the room, but the prize is missing from the room for Bush’s speech on Sunday.
    A bit of image research might lead to a determination on when it was removed. It is possible it was removed simply to reduce distractions from the background, or perhaps the image of a mediator was not the one that Bush was trying to cultivate.

  • itwasntme

    His handlers know this stupid president needs all the props he can get. I’m getting nausiated by all the background “meaning” I’m supposedly soaking up subliminally. The handlers’ visual heavy-handedness assumes stupidity by those watching, which is also nausiating. I can’t believe I have to put up with this sh*t for three more years. I think I’ll move to Canada and not take the TV with me.

  • readytoblowagasket

    There *are* similarities between Teddy Roosevelt and George W. Bush, but they all happen to be negative. One similarity is that both men overstepped their executive authority and felt entitled to do so. It is fitting, then, that TR is the backdrop for this particular speech about GWB’s authorization of spying (I love that the media keep using that word) on the American people.
    One way in which the two men are dissimilar is that TR became more popular in his second term, while GWB became less popular. Put that in your pipe and smoke it, Karl. Oh, wait! Are you allowed to smoke in federal prison?

  • jt in BC

    Yes rtbag overstepping executive authority and relationship with William Randolph Hersh in fabrication (yellow journalism) of war events is my first take on the Teddy prop. ( most appropriate for “W” )
    The second is of “Teddy Bear” is Karl suggesting a cuddly GWB for the Holiday Season? (Those Eagles are looking more like Vultures as 1000 days + continue onward and…?)

  • Cactus

    Oh, the prez and his props. It’s beginning to be a humorous sub-plot to his repetitious speeches. Granted for most of my life I have studiously avoided watching presidential talks; however, it seems that most of them speak very solemnly from the oval office or the rose garden. The oval, of course, provides all the presidential trappings that most presidents needed. W, apparently, is so insecure that he demands a strong backdrop. To paraphrase Magritte, “This is not a president.”
    ummabdulla made a good point about getting the two Roosevelts mixed up. There’s something murky about being obsessed with destroying FDR’s legacy while praising Teddy’s image. I don’t know the provenance of that painting, but I’d be willing to bet that it has more to do with Teddy’s image of himself than with the public image of him. But Rove wouldn’t want to bring that up, would he? Then, if the rumors about Rove are true, he may be picking these ’strong, manly’ backdrops for a reason other than the glorification of his dear leader. The connotation in the painting of the “rough-rider president” and “rough-rider horse” may hint at repressed gay semiotics. Or am I out on a limb with this one?
    There’s also the contrast of W’s screaming, open-mouthed head in the foreground reminding the viewer less of a president than of a child throwing a tantrum, and the blurred background reminding us all of what a real president (man?) looks like. If Rove thinks that was a good day, he is indeed distracted.
    An interesting side note is that, late in his career, Roosevelt bolted the republican party because he didn’t approve of what Taft was doing. It is his (Taft’s) great-grandson who is now the Gov. of Ohio who is in such trouble.
    I wonder, do you think there is a cabal among the presidential press photographers to subtly undermine the careful maneuverings of Karl?

  • JJF

    I saw the photo in the L.A. Times and first thought I had was, “why does a newpaper frame the shot as Karl Rove would?” Sure, Rove can put Bush in front of a painting of TR, but there is no journalistic reason for framing the shot to capture the entirety of the painting. They could have more fairly framed the shot around Bush, and cut off TR roughly at the waist. I didn’t get the memo that the media has become part of the White House propaganda machine. Pathetic.

  • zatopa

    As has been pointed out upthread, it seems likely that the photo could have been shot such as to have in focus both the photo in the background and the face in the foreground. As it is, the shapes in the painting carry more weight, having lost the fine detail to soft focus. And while Teddy R projects control through the body language here, it’s out of keeping with the way the horse is painted: rearing back, its tail animated in the wind. That sense of power on the verge of taking off running seems to be rising from GWB’s head like a thought bubble, and his facial expression gives us no assurance that he’s in control. No parallel to that stagey hand on the hip. Bush is barely holding the reins.

  • Mad_nVT

    Nice of the Press to offer such a gilt-edged portrait of our President and one of the American heros.
    Teddy Roosevelt as a Rough-Rider– good choice for a comparison.
    It seems that the Spanish-American War was ignited by fraudulent claims. Surpise, yet another imperial war begun under false pretenses.
    “Remember the Maine”, the battle cry used to whip up sentiment for war, referred to the battleship USS Maine, blown up in Havana Harbor by those damned natives. Except that a US Navy inquiry in 1976 found that the explosion was caused by a smoldering fire in the coal bunker, and those damned natives didn’t do it after all.
    Ah, what the hell, we still killed some natives and took over the country.
    And what was the country that was being invaded? None other than Cuba.
    And just how long were those famous Rough-Riders galloping around killing the Spaniards and the Cubans. Well, it turns out that it was only for seven weeks. But Teddy Roosevelt sure made a big deal of it.
    So, with all of the lies and the puffery, the Teddy Roosevelt portrait is perfect for the Bush Backdrop.

  • Mad_nVT

    Nice of the Press to offer such a gilt-edged portrait of our President and one of the American heros.
    Teddy Roosevelt as a Rough-Rider– good choice for a comparison.
    It seems that the Spanish-American War was ignited by fraudulent claims. Surpise, yet another imperial war begun under false pretenses.
    “Remember the Maine”, the battle cry used to whip up sentiment for war, referred to the battleship USS Maine, blown up in Havana Harbor by those damned natives. Except that a US Navy inquiry in 1976 found that the explosion was caused by a smoldering fire in the coal bunker, and those damned natives didn’t do it after all.
    Ah, what the hell, we still killed some natives and took over the country.
    And what was the country that was being invaded? None other than Cuba.
    And just how long were those famous Rough-Riders galloping around killing the Spaniards and the Cubans. Well, it turns out that it was only for seven weeks. But Teddy Roosevelt sure made a big deal of it.
    So, with all of the lies and the puffery, the Teddy Roosevelt portrait is perfect for the Bush Backdrop.

  • Scott

    He might as well talk to the painting, since he is not interested in getting anyone’s feedback. Rove-Bush is trying to paint a story about what a wonderful President that Rove-Bush is. The rest of the world isn’t buying it for a minute. I’m constantly amazed at how gullible people here are. How many people have you met that can get a hangover from “clearing brush” on the ranch?
    As for getting the memo, apparently NYT held off on printing the story about spying on citizens for, what, three years now? Additionally, Faux News continues to exist. News flash: the media *is* the White House propaganda machine. Hook, line, and sinker.

  • http://happening-here.blogspot.com/ janinsanfran

    I used this photo on my blog to illustrate a post I called “Bush Imperator” (about the warrantless wiretaps, obviously.) The eagles on the flag standards are a nice Roman imperial touch, I think.
    However, my personal nickname for this picture is “The Man on Horseback,” a reference to General Boulanger who promoted such an image of himself as the alternative to the foibles of 19th century French democracy — and whose coup attempt was foiled. Do our politicians have the stomach to turn back our man on horseback?

  • readytoblowagasket

    Are we absolutely sure that’s Teddy Roosevelt on the horse and not Karl Rove in a fake mustache?

  • marysz

    Rove/Bush continuously try to conflate their failed (and disgraceful) presidency with with Administrations that had genuine accomplishments. It’s pathetic, really. Not so much for Bush, who’s too much of a dimwit to actually be aware of what Rove is doing; but it’s pathetic on Rove’s part. Rove grandiosely believes he’s on the same level as FDR or Teddy Roosevelt. And he’s living it out vicariously through Bush.

  • Henry

    If the idea was to show that Bush is plenty tough, the project failed. Photographs of people with their mouths open tend to make them look stupid (exceptions for shouting, wailing, etc.). That’s the case here, accentuated by the lost look on his face, his position at the bottom of the picture and the lighting that makes him meld into the picture, rather than stand against it. This is not hagiography or framing.

  • MildBill

    what to say about this administration’s use of slogans and images to frame president dunderhead’s pronouncements? subtle as a sledgehammer? nuanced as gunfire? the image, it’s impressionistic or subliminal suggestion, wrapped around a 15-second soundbite of the commander-in-chief saying something reassuring and agreeable, will become the imprint of whatever the whitehouse image-crafters want to place in the public’s consciousness. the same lines he’s been using all month or all year? it’s called staying on message, speaking with one voice, while a cacaphony of other voices complaining about this, that or the other fuzzes out like white noise. any bets on how long the bush status quo can continue hanging on under the circumstances?

  • momly

    Wow, people sure like cowboys these days!

  • http://profile.typekey.com/richsodergren/ rchsod

    who remembers teddy? i wager over 75% of the people born after 1960 haven`t a clue about what teddy r did. my god that was almost a hundred years ago…jesus these people are really stupid.

  • ummabdulla

    Hmmmm… there may be more to this Teddy Roosevelt imagery than we realized.
    Jim Lobe writes that Bush took two books with him on vacation, and one was about Teddy Roosevelt.
    From Anti-Imperialists Beware – Bush Is Reading Again:
    “The choices are not unimportant. Indeed, Bush is known to read so little – both for official business and for diversion – and to be so impressed by the few books he does read that it is imperative for people who are paid to know what’s happening in Washington to find out what’s on the president’s nightstand when he turns out the light…
    “The first, When Trumpets Call: Theodore Roosevelt After the White House, concerns his favorite presidential antecedent, whose famous or infamous 1904 Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine shortly after the Spanish-American War heralded Washington’s claim to great-power status and its right to intervene unilaterally anywhere in the Americas against ‘chronic wrongdoing, or an impotence which results in a general loosening of the ties of civilized society.’”

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