Archives About Staff BagNews is dedicated to visual politics, media literacy and the analysis of news images.
November 10, 2008

Obama – Bush White House Visit: What Was Laura’s Problem?


2Obamas-Bushs-White-House-2.jpg 3Obamas-Bushs-White-House-3.jpg

4Obamas-Bushs-White-House-4.jpg 5Obamas-Bushs-White-House-5.jpg

Although the media completely looked the other way, Laura Bush did something quite strange while posing with the Obama’s right after the couple arrived at the White House this afternoon. First standing there opening and closing her hands (#1), Laura — whose left arm was touching Michelle Obama — suddenly stared down at her left shoulder (#2) the way someone would suddenly notice a bee had landed on them.

The action was pronounced enough to cause Michelle to look down (#3), to appear momentarily confused, and even elevate her left hand in a “what just happened?” gesture (#4). At that point, with the photo op over and the couples moving to go inside, Michelle naturally turned to Laura Bush. Mrs. Bush, making the turn but not quite making eye contact with Michelle, then said by way of explanation (#5 — as could be made out from the C-SPAN feed):

“It’s a Fall color.”

So, what happened? Ostensibly, it looked like Laura — smack in the middle of an otherwise thoroughly brief photo op — involuntarily moved to check the color of her dress, perhaps to compare her choice with the burgundy Michelle was wearing.

If the moment was innocent enough, however, it suggested one of two things to me. First, on a day in which the polls reflected historically low approval ratings for her seemingly unaffected husband, it seems logical enough Laura had been gripped by a sudden concern over how she looked alongside the newly- and (very) popularly-elected Mr. Obama and Mrs. Obama.

My second thought, however, goes specifically to her comment and involves not just brown versus red but white versus brown. (I hope I’m not being too Freudian here, but the metaphoric implications are profoundly rich.)

So, Laura Bush, knowing the Obamas were dropping by, got up this morning and picked out a brown outfit, then suddenly and very consciously realized it standing next to Michelle in front of the entire visual press corp. Then, after flinching in a way that clearly, if momentarily, threw off Michelle Obama, Mrs. Bush accounted for it with a reference to color.

Well, as the victor in this history-making election and Laura’s immediate replacement, Michelle — in the political universe — actually is the color of Fall.

And then, the reference to season might have been metaphorical too. Meaning, to the extent the Obama’s — America’s first African-American first couple –represent the hit of Autumn, you could say Laura’s seasonal description of her reaction was informed by Michelle and Barack’s immediate embodiment of the Bush’s political fall.

Here’s the C-SPAN video to take a look.

Click for more:
200811101627.jpg 200811101629.jpg

  • Cat Ion

    This post reminds me of another post on this site — Laura Bush visiting Katrina survivors:

  • bystander

    Wow. Just, wow.

  • bystander

    Great catch, Cat Ion.

  • karen

    very interesting, especially the involuntary physical reaction….as an aside, although Laura’s never been a fashion plate, I don’t think I’ve ever seen her dressing in more dowdy manner. Interesting clothing choice when you know your guest is your stylish replacement.

  • jtfromBC

    I believe Laura felt lost and out classed in every way by Michelle.
    I could offer a half dozen reasons but don’t feel that its necessary.

  • Roschelle

    Pics and transcript of how meeting “might” have gone!

  • Scarabus

    As Freud (purportedly?) said, “Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.” Point being that meaning is always affected, if not determined, by context. That’s true of the meaning inferred from this sequence of photos.
    Any individual’s behavior on a specific occasion should be interpreted in light of the *pattern* of that individual’s behavior over time. The pattern itself should, of course, be interpreted in light of a statistically valid/reliable analysis of the behavior of a reference group. To jump from A to C without factoring in B renders the whole exercise suspect.
    Wait! Put the knives away! I’m not attacking the analysis of this particular sequence of images. I’m just saying that this sequence should be interpreted in the context of similar sequences shot on similar occasions. That would reveal whether Michelle Obama is a significant factor or whether any other woman—regardless of race, religion, dress color, occasion, or whatever—would have elicited the same response.
    Lots of on-line bloggers and commenters have perseverated about Laura Bush’s wardrobe and zombie-like affect. And lots have snarked about rumors of her drinking and/or using Xanax. I have absolutely no idea about the validity of such snarking (though I do think being married to 43 would explain that and a lot more). Point is that past behavior has elicited such snarking. And that provides a context important to consider in interpreting current behavior.

  • America Towers

    Osama frauded, gangstered, cheated and lied to win out a federal election campaign, and the leftist media and internet trolling team supported him. And Americans were scared to confront him and fight him for fear of mass race riots and terrorist attacks. But, let’s see how far into Americas White House he really gets as the cooking continues and, this time, America helms the kitchen.

  • FFFish

    Scarabus, dude, that’s a really *weird* thing to write. If you aren’t a fruitcake… well, maybe you should think again. Your words are not those of a sane man. Either calm down or get help.

  • FFFish

    Ah, sheesh, crappy web design had me identify the wrong user. c/Scarabus/American Towers/

  • FFFish

    (or, frankly, my own crappy eyes.)

  • Asta

    lemme guess…. America Towers is a skin head. “America helms the kitchen?” Oh please. At this point, I really hope there will be a war on poverty and ignorance. This Crap has got to stop.

  • NoContest

    I have never seen laura look so dowdy. She does look like she is dressed in a burlap sack. Hilarious! Like a stale sack of potoato(e)’s. If Michelle only had a cream pie in her hand and could plant it right in the frump’s face.
    You are right, the Obama’s have outclassed, upstaged and thoroughly discredited the shrub’s in every way.
    Exit – stage left…. and hurry.

  • lsamsa

    I think that Laura Bush is an intelligent woman…from interviews I’ve viewed…but I also think that in the last couple of years, she perhaps seems rather ‘distanced’.
    I make no judgements here…I only observe that she seems (via whatever means) to be able to totally disassociate herself from the circumstances/importance/reason for being where she is at the time.

  • Kent

    I noticed the gesture when I saw it at full speed on MSNBC during Chris Matthews. I actually thought she was checking her watch, or perhaps making sure that whatever watch/bracelet is on her left arm wasn’t snagging the fabric on Michelle Obama’s dress.

  • db

    To me, it looks like she’s just checking out that thing on her left shoulder. On the other hand, Michelle slightly shakes her head, which makes me wonder if they are responding to some unheard question about Mrs. Bush’s outfit.

  • Cactus

    At first I thought The Bag was over-analyzing once again. Now, I’m not so sure. I don’t have the capability to rerun the video on my antique computer, but did notice the reaction when I first watched it. I thought at the time that Laura was commenting on the fact that their dresses ‘clashed’ (it’s a woman thing) and, perhaps as the older and less confident woman, apologized. I’ve never gotten the feeling that Laura is all that confident in public, or even, perhaps, in her own skin. But I did wonder why she chose that dress when she must have known that Michelle would wear red, as she so often does. But considering that the dress was brown (it looked maroon on my antique TV), I think she chose it because she is depressed. And there are probably 17 reasons for that.
    OTOH, I’ve never sensed that Laura is particularly ill at ease with blacks or Latinos. But perhaps she has always been able to feel aloof and superior to them, and here is one black woman who is obviously not only on her level, but literally towers over her. For some one from segregated Texas, that could lead to a lot of discomfort.
    But then it could be that Laura, who is used to a certain routine and feeling of confidence in being 43’s 1st, suddenly and surprisingly came face to face with a smarter, younger, taller, prettier and more confident replacement. Another woman thing.

  • Kit (Keep It Trill)

    I saw it live when it happened. I thought she was reacting to being touched by a black woman. She didn’t appear to be checking out her dress; she flinched. Considering that the first time her husband shook hands with Obama he boldly used hand sanitizer immediately afterwards and in front of him, it would not surprise me if both are so deeply racist that they’d behave this way. Keep in mind that the Bush’s grew up in Texas, one of the most racist states in the Union, long before blacks could share the same public water fountains, restrooms, or eat at the same counter.
    I think many whites cannot imagine a racism that runs this deep. It does, and it’s driven Bush’s policies. Think he’d have bombed the hell out of Iraq for this long if those people looked like Swedes? Think again.
    I’m black, early 50s, and have been the target of primitive racism many times. Stuff like hating you with their eyes if you brush up against them on a bus or elevator. A cashier not wanting to touch your hand when they return your change. A neighbor who makes a point to never hold the door for blacks in the building. The teacher who has no fond looks or smiles for the black kids, only the white ones, or even last week, my daughter’s science teacher who looked at her primarily black and Latino class with hate in her eyes the day after Obama was elected, and picked at them ‘more than usual’ for the rest of week.

  • Kris T

    What if it was just a bee?

  • donna

    Walmart vs. real fashion taste. Oh dear.
    I won’t miss them.

  • desertwind

    I think she was distracted by her own brooch. Or something.
    Oh! Just watched it again. It looks like Laura thought her ring had caught on Michelle’s dress.
    Funny how similar in silhouette the dresses are, yet how different in style.

  • mudkitty

    MS Obama’s dress was not burgundy, it was Reagan red. And Laura’s dress was tasteful enough, and a fall color. And to me it looked like Laura was just giving the once over.

  • bluinky

    meta-(un)stablestate mensatell

  • lytom

    Hmmm, what about the change over? The smiles on both sides?
    The transition is promising to be a smooth one and afterwards no bringing to justice the criminal. Pleasant things said even with the topic of discussion.
    I recall how Obama talked about Bush and now all respect, or was that all just an illusion and there will be just the same stuff?

  • Progressive Mom

    I noticed the gesture as it happened, and thought it was a reaction to a possible jewelry snag, too.
    But I also thought that during the entire welcome (greeting, handshakes, and most especially our new Prez introducing his wife to the Bushes) Laura seemed uncomfortable about something. The intro, in particular, seemed to throw her off balance. She had difficulty “settling down” during the photo op, the sun in everyone’s eyes was making eye contact strained, and something clearly was bothering her.
    That doesn’t mean it was the Obamas, however.

  • timolo

    Over analyzing. I really think Laura Bush could care less about the clothes of Michelle Obama. She had to share a stage with Cindy MccCain during the RNC.
    Not touching Black people? Condi Rice, Colin Powell, Rod Paige. Three black cabinet members.
    I have found this site tackles a subject most people do not even think about and is absolutely fascinating, but it has its moments, this being one of them, where it really shoots off into the left field we get accused of picking our candidates from. Its also rather hypocritical and sexist to be having a discussion on the clothes of the wives. Yes?

  • smasher

    I watched the feed on the BBC site. I think Laura Bush was checking out whether Michelle Obama was wearing heels. As in, “Gosh–you sure are tall. Heels? Oh, OK.”

  • lbf

    What I noticed when I first saw this clip was – wow, that red dress that Michelle was wearing, then oh Mrs. Bush, is also wearing red, but not as good a color, then while I was thinking this, it looked like Mrs. Bush noticed the contrast and made that gesture as if comparing the dress colors. But a jewelry snag is a more likely explanation, truthfully.

  • Dev

    Yes I noticed that right away, they did not posed for a long time maybe 6 second. Laura LOOKED at her watch to signal Michelle to go inside. She disrupted everyone by that gesture. It was very odd. She touched Michelle and signal her watch.. meaning that is enough “let’s go inside”. Damn it was only about 6 second approx. She knew what she was doing-no body will do something like that- when they are taking historical pictures.
    If it was not for his gestured I am sure there will be more photos. She did not want to make history.
    This is my take, and yes Bagnews I knew you will noticed this also.
    Anyhow Michelle was Michelle.
    Dev – Canada.

  • Books Alive

    I understand the Obamas arrived about ten minutes early. I think Laura glanced at her watch, as in photo #2. Reminds me of when Bush 41 famously glanced at his watch during a debate, and was pilloried for it. Of course,he was clearly checking his watch, unlike this.

  • ketura

    I have missed seeing you on Twitter so I’m glad I caught this post. But I also think you’re overthinking it. My sense is that Mrs. Bush thoughtfully chose a color that would allow Mrs. Obama to stand out. There are a million legit reasons why she might have looked down or flinched, and the concern that she’d snagged something is just one of them. She had no way to know what Michelle would wear and Mrs. Bush does often wear neutrals. I think it’s no more and no less than that.

  • (race/track reminiscences)

    postmentopause/fall/colors :)

  • Dean at work

    I’ve seen the video clip numerous times on the cable “news”, and I’d noticed the “flinching” move myself. I finally decided that Laura-for some reason- had quickly checked her watch. None of the “news” heads had even commented on it.

  • Mooser

    The wonderful South African singer, Miriam Makeba, passed away this Monday.
    I hope Michille takes inspiration from her wardrobe. Something Miriam Makeba by way of Boney M is exactly what’s needed.

  • JulieZS

    On the MSNBC video, I heard Obama say “it is autumnal” in response to the fall color comment Laura made. I think Laura was just comparing how lovely the two colors looked side by side. It was something I noticed right off, they looked very seasonally appropriate. That and that the two men had blue ties. Obama announcing “yes, deal with it the blues (dems) won!” Bush conceding “ok, you blues won it this time, I give up”

  • nightbird

    I kind of agree with “cactus”. When I first saw them together I thought yikes! Don’t they consult on what colors they are going to wear? CLASH!
    I truly think Laura said something about the colors they were wearing just to make conversation. About all that would mean is that Laura was a bit anxious about this meeting, maybe overly self conscious or she just gave over to whatever makes us say awkward things in an awkward situation in an attempt not to make the situation awkward. Nothing more than that. Been there.
    By the way isn’t this like a record number of posts for a BNN item?
    What does that mean? and What am I doing here?

  • 99

    When I saw it on video I thought Laura was just startled by how tall Michelle is, but it looks, here as if her brooch really might have been a threat to Michelle’s breast….

  • paulo

    Aside from looking quite a bit more dowdy than Mrs Bush usually looks, I don’t see the analysis here. Not sure what she is looking at maybe the once over as noted above. Maybe it is the color – a very frumpy and frumpily cut brown dress next next to RED – not burgundy ahem… made her feel self-conscious.
    I might note that Mrs Obama seems to have a propensity for red at public appearances. Is that a nod to her power player past? Especially in light of last week’s news reports about a study showing that red really is the female power color ( at least for men).
    What I want to know is how come both Pres and Mrs Bush appear to both have their right index fingers extended in photos 1 and 2.

  • Spencer

    My first view of the video I got the same impression as BAGnews, but after watching a dozen or so more times (I get obsessive about these things :) ), I see: Laura looking off-camera in a certain direction, then looking at her sleeve, then Michelle looking in the same direction, giving a, “I don’t get what you’re asking me” look.
    All that, plus the: “it’s a fall color” makes me think someone was off-camera, pantomiming a question (because I can’t hear a question being asked), perhaps gesturing towards Laura’s arm, and gesturing with enough emphasis that Laura is compelled to see what’ so interesting about her sleeve.
    I could see the gesture prompting all this being a photographer trying to get them to move closer together, or trying to get Laura to put her arm around Michelle’s back (because Michelle did the same towards her). And awkwardness ensuing.
    I’ve witnessed a few on-site video shoots, and the crews do sometimes get that bossy.
    Now, I could totally see a woman of Laura’s generation (much like my own mom), having the random thought: oh look, I’m wearing brown – and so are you! A nervous attempt at humor from someone not comfortable with ethnic differences. But I don’t think that’s what’s going on here.

  • tallulahbankhead

    it happens all the time when you are a confident woman who really loves yourself and possibly meet someone who never met someone like you in their lifetime.

  • KansasKowboy

    When I saw the event live, I thought Laura was looking at her watch.

  • vcInCA

    re: kit & cactus..
    I just returned from a week in Houston. going there immediately after the election, i prepared myself for something highly unpleasant, surrounded by racism & republicans. i was pleasantly surprised, however. I found that it was easier to talk to repubs, actually have an interesting conversation with them, than at home (bay area, CA)–here, people don’t seem to really talk to people who aren’t in the same political party. as well, one guy, living there for 8 or 9 years after spending 30+ on the east coast, made an interesting point to me. He said that he finds far less racism there than he ever saw on the east coast, in that people from different demographics actually talk to each other, interact in situations like the grocery store, while he’d felt that the distance between himself and other groups back home had been far more rigid.
    now, i’m not saying that racism doesn’t exist, or that houston is indicative of the whole state, but as a non-white minority there, my experiences in houston agreed with what this guy told me. i guess i’m just a little wary at this point of automatically saying texas= bigot or racist. that’s not to say that they are or aren’t racist, or how complicated that may be, but still, perhaps it would be good to tone it down a little on labeling an entire state?

  • andreajones

    Laura just realized she forgot to wear a bra.

  • John R

    On a lighter (and less mature) note on this event:

  • Kim

    Very perceptive but I still haven’t seen anyone mention that President Bush and Michelle Obama did not greet each other before the photos.

  • ms. cornflake

    No one has mentioned what Mr. Obama said after this brief interchange. I am slightly hard of hearing and had my TV on LOUD during this whole meet and greet.
    Just after the four of them turned to go inside, Mr. Obama said, “yes, you both look autumnal.” This could reference Mrs. Bush’s comment that they both were dressed in fall colors. No harm – no foul.

  • no prescription needed

    jajaja great team…. you dont think that???

Refresh Archives

Random Notes