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January 26, 2009

On Errol Morris’s Interview: Ground Zero, And Placing Bush “In The Context Of Where He Was”

Bush 9_11 Morris post.jpg

The account I found most telling in Errol Morris’s interview with three wire service photo editors about the Bush era involves the image above. As Jim Bourg of Reuters explains:

I actually edited this photo there in New York on the scene in 2001. I was looking to put him [Bush] in the context of where he was – that he was literally on the rubble with the firefighters. And it was, frankly, not easy to do just because of the logistics of the photographers and the environment that the photographers were facing in the wreckage. I don’t think the average viewer looking at this picture realizes just how close this photographer is to the president. It’s an extremely wide-angle lens, and he’s literally right in front of him. So the ability to put it in context and show where Bush actually was is really a challenge in this situation.

It’s a challenge, I’d say, that was mostly overcome — except for the fact that Bob Beckwith from Ladder Co. 117 is staring right at the camera, therefore ruining the sanctity (not to mention, the larger propaganda value) of this otherwise near-religious shot.

What’s a relief to know, however, that — through the benefit of optics; and Dubya’s skill as a poser; and the framing of the building; and the “leg up” spirit of the man with the blue hat; and the prayerful countenance of the Chief holding the extra hard hat (as if, for those firemen who no longer needed one anymore) — the wreckage and the other photographers swarming around were transcended successfully enough to place Karl Rove’s client and America’s comforter-in-chief “in the context of where he was.”

Knowing all that, I’d say: sure Bob, go ahead and clap.

(image: Win McNamee: caption: U.S. President George W. Bush talks to retired firefighter Bob Beckwith (R) from Ladder 117 at the scene of the World Trade Center disaster in New York, September 14, 2001)

  • cenoxo

    Dubya is so 9-11, and he (and hopefully it) are over.
    Obama is so Matthew 3:13-17
    …but does that particular image also give us an accurate picture of its subject?

    [*Barack Obama speaks in Chicago's Apostolic Church of God service about fatherhood on Sunday, June 16, 2008. Photo: Alex Brandon; Associated Press.]

  • yg

    errol morris is a remarkable filmaker. his mr. death blew me away. i’ve never seen anything like it. it has one scene where he just holds the camera still, filming the ruin of a crumbling edifice. it’s hard to describe the effect. he made time stand still and expand at the same time. absolutely haunting. he affected consciousness without showing anything more than brick and grass. i think him more wizard than documentarian.
    the man’s fearless too. check out this exhange:
    EM: I met Karl Rove. I was doing commercials for Nike, and my job was to go to three different cities and talk to coaches who coached now-famous athletes. I visited a high school in Waco, Texas, where LaDainian Tomlinson went, and I stayed at the Waco Hilton. That morning I came down to the lobby and I saw Orrin Hatch. I thought, Oh my God, can that really be Orrin Hatch? I’m looking at him, still trying to figure out if it’s really him, when Karl Rove walks up beside him. [Laughs] Then they go into the breakfast room.
    SS: The free breakfast room at the Hilton?
    EM: Yes. I walked up to the table – they’re sitting together. I introduced myself. I said, “I’m Errol Morris. I made this film The Fog of War.” Karl Rove said, “That’s one of my favorite films. I give that as a present to my friends.” I mentioned to Rove that I knew he was very busy, but that I’d welcome the opportunity to interview him at some point in the future. He gave me this very funny look like, “You must be kidding.”

    oh, come on, karl, say yes.

  • Alan

    I think it’s a great image, a truly powerful image. It captures GWB at what must be considered the very pinnacle of his presidency – his visit to the wreckage of the World Trade Center in the aftermath of the 9/11 attack. I don’t think Bush is posing, or if he is, he’s doing it unselfconsciously. I think he’s in the moment. History is giving him the call to greatness, and he knows it. The nation is watching him, the whole world is watching him, and this is the moment he’s been dreaming of his whole life. The tragedy of GWB, of course, is that he blew it. After this stirring moment, when he conducts himself with righteous and heroic dignity, he proceeds to make all the wrong moves, leading the nation into a most dismal chapter in it’s history and blundering ignorantly into one of the most spectacularly failed presidencies. Sure, Rove used this image and others from the same event to help construct the Bush mythology, but at that moment Bush himself believed it.

  • Gasho

    I find this image to be stirring, too, but for almost exactly the opposite reason.
    This is the image of the BIG LIE. (If the lie is big enough, they’ll have to believe.) The Pet Goat scene was where W has to transform through the alchemical process from one to the other and this is the very next scene, where we see the evil-doer-as-hero. This is the moment of the Astounding Inversion – when the villain, having caused this massive destruction, stands upon the wreckage and proclaims that he is in fact the hero who will save us.
    I’ll never be convinced of the neocons’ innocence regarding the 3000+ murders on September 11, 2001. It was, remember, the New Pearl Harbor they “needed” to advance their agenda… and Bush is just the daring yet morally bankrupt fratboy; the son of a former president they could put in the driver’s seat to make it all happen. War President! That’s the high he’d been looking for, alright!
    And here he is in this photo – HIGH AS A KITE on PURE POWER. It’s a very Faustian story, really. Only Rove is the new Faust.

  • JM

    Rove would be Mephistopheles, I think.

  • JM

    As to the rest of your post, Gasho, much as I loathe the neocons, it’s frankly repugnant to suggest that they did anything other than take advantage of 9/11. You’ll never be convinced of their innocence? On the contrary, it should be very, very difficult to convince anyone that any American would have anything to do with such an act. One of the most important parts of American patriotism is granting that someone who disagrees can be a patriot, too. We’d all do well to remember that.
    Besides, a conspiracy that size would have fallen apart by now.
    Besides that, these ridiculous theories do nothing but let the US off the hook for our decades of hideous foreign policy. Conspiracy nuts need to pull their heads out. The truth is much more horrifying than the fiction.

  • Karen H.

    I guess I’m the only to whom it looks like Beckwith is in handcuffs….
    I found something pathetic about the whole thing when the photograph was taken…in the vein of what the other commenter identified as the moment Bush had been waiting for. But the problem is that “this moment” came after that shocked look of stupidity in the kindergarten class and the fleeing flight to Louisiana, then Colorado, or wherever he was fleeing to in a slow motion undirected manner. We’d just been attacked and this adolescent goober was running away. I’ve never felt more disgust for a leader in my lifetime.

  • Michael (The BAG)

    Some leaders are born, others are made.

  • PA

    JM, on what basis do you make the astounding claim that “a conspiracy that size would have fallen apart by now”.
    There’s a study that defines how long a conspiracy would last? Please.
    Regardless of conspiracies, your statement made as if it’s based on an axiom of fundamental truth (truthiness?) just does not stand.
    You’d be better of using words such as “unlikely”, or “hard to contain”. I could say with equal provability that “a conspiracy that significant would never get out because of its seriousness”, and be no more (or less) ridiculous that your sweeping assertion.

  • OldMayfly

    Too bad we don’t have a pic of Bush at the air force base in Nebraska (Offnut, I think?) where Bush went to hide until he knew it was safe after 9/11. I would never vote for Guiliani (sp?) but I have to say–when trouble hit in his city/jurisdiction–he ran toward it and not away from it.

  • Jeff

    I believe the fire official on the left is holding W’s safety glasses and his hard hat. W is too cool for school and he is the only one there not wearing the safety gear. I guess you could say the fireman is symbolically holding the gear of lost firemen but i think he is symbolically doing the job of a gofer, toting the required gear for a Prez who can’t be forced to do the right thing. He demeans those around him by treating them like servants, subverts the sanctity of the site by using it as a photo op for his own use and says in his junior high school manner, “You may be the heroes but I’m cooler than you because I can come and go at my discretion (they are stuck with the job at the site.) and I don’t have to wear dopey looking gear. You can’t make me.” Plus he has a habit of putting his hand on people as if to make them a possession. He does it in a controlling way. Not a light touch on the arm or a pat on the back but a grip on a shoulder, neck or head to pull the person in. Resistance to that is considered disrespectful. Look at all the flak the German Chancellor got when she reacted negatively to his two hands on her neck and shoulders.
    It’s a very aggressive move to put your hands on people that way.

  • JM

    Oh my God, PA, there’s no conspiracy. In the future, when I’m dismissing fevered, slanderous, distracting imaginations, I’ll be more careful to hedge my bets. Jesus.
    Jeff, that’s a good point about Bush’s body language. (Holy monkey, it’s good not to have to say “President Bush”!) He looks very possessive of the other man, as though he’s claiming him as property. And your connection to how he put his hands on Chancellor Merkel is well taken. I think a lot of that had to do with the fact that she’s a woman–I can’t imagine him touching a man that way–but his body language in general has always been deeply creepy. The way he would wave, for example, by bending slightly at the waist, sticking his arm out stiffly, and waggling his hand back and forth, I found offputting at best. It was as though he was greeting people with an attempt to unbalance them. It was a very aggressive move, just like the other moves you note.
    This picture gets stranger the longer I look at it. At first, Bush looks like a leader on a hilltop, but after a minute, he starts to look like he’s trying to look like a leader on a hilltop. Everyone in the photo is looking in a different direction, and no one is looking in the same direction as Bush *at all*. Furthermore, no one is looking at him. It’s like he’s in his own world. Which, yeah. He is.

  • cenoxo

    And how would history have been different IF

  • Gasho

    JM – I appreciate you trying to cool the jets on the conspiracy line of thought, but honestly, it’s the only story that I find coherent. It’s the only one that ties all of the oddly impossible facts together so that they make any sense.
    I’d love to think that there’s no way an American could possibly be involved in a plot like 9/11… because it’s so horrible, but you have to remember that the Neocon long term strategy is about global dominance and this operation to them was a necessary evil to do what they thought needed to be done to bring the rest of the world in line with America’s interests. NYC just had to ‘take one for the team’. It’s sick. It’s mass murder. It’s insane. But it got the war started – an open ended “war on terror” – and if Bush had been good at leading the nation during wartime, they could have extended it for decades; controlled a massive share of the world’s oil; snuffed out threats anywhere on the planet by labeling them ‘terrorist’; controlled the US population and economy.. the list goes on and on and it’s all about wealth, power, and dominance. Absolute power corrupts absolutely. There you go.
    .. And I don’t mind thinking that someone who disagrees with me can be a patriot. I just don’t think that’s the case in this instance. Why would Bush dismantle the foundations of the Constitutional system if he were a patriot?? Fundamental principles such as Habeas Corpus, the 4th Amendment, The Geneva Conventions, Separation of Church and State, A Nonpartisan Justice Department, The Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, Checks and Balances.. you name it.. he’s undermined it. Seriously undermined it. We are weaker now because he needed to play his games. That’s no patriot. Sorry. Uh Uh. No Way.

  • yg

    ceno, obama would not have ignored intel briefings warning bin laden determined to strike within the US.
    why are you so intent in trying to conflate obama with bush at every turn? are you a naderite or puma?

  • cenoxo

    Neither one nor the other. Contrarian, if you like. I could ask why are you so intent upon inflating Obama at every turn, but that would be an oversimplification of the issues.
    My goals are the same as BAGnewsNotes (although perhaps from a slightly less partisan point of view):

    1.) To analyze news and advocacy images for the way they reveal media bias; political or cultural stereotypes; larger political strategies and dynamics; psychological character; and news not readily obvious in the “textual media.”
    From a more partisan point of view, the intent is to also analyze images and framing for an underlying conservative or commercial agenda.
    2.) To encourage and train people to become better “readers” and consumers of visual news, advertising and advocacy images, and political propaganda (of all stripes).
    3.) To grow a community and foster on-line discussion around the understanding and interpretation of news and political images. BAGnewsNotes is not a lecture so much as a seminar with all participants contibuting, sharing and deepening their knowledge.
    4.) To provide a platform for thoughtful and impassioned social photography and political photojournalism.

    Amen, but until the day arrives when no one of any stripe has an underlying agenda, it is perhaps better to regard politics with your left eye (and your right eye) wide open.
    In Obama Announces Plan to Restore Trust in Government, he promised to make government more transparent:

    It’s no secret that most Americans think the country is on the wrong track,” Obama told the group. “But the reason isn’t just failed policies. It’s a system in Washington that has failed the American people. A system that has not kept the most fundamental trust of American democracy: that our government is of the people, and that it must govern for all the people – not just the interests of the wealthy and well-connected.

    We’re not going to be able to change America unless we challenge this system that isn’t working for us and hasn’t for a long time,” Obama said. “Now I know some will say that we can’t make this change. That the culture of corrosive influence in politics is too sprawling to spotlight. Or that the lobbyists writing our laws represent real Americans.

    That’s not how I see it. Because when it comes to what’s wrong with this country, the American people are not the problem. The American people are the answer. The American people want to trust in our government again – we just need a government that will trust in us. And making government accountable to the people isn’t just a cause of this campaign – it’s been a cause of my life for two decades.

    As I understand optics, transparency means that you can see through both sides of the Looking Glass: it’s not a one-way mirror for Conservatives or Progressives (as if those are the only possible sides of any issue) to hide behind.
    After eight years of the Bush administration, we’re anxious to find a better alternative, but that doesn’t mean we interpret everything that Obama says as Gospel, or that we stop criticizing what he might do wrong. Doing those things are not stab in the back, they’re good citizenship.
    To place too much hope in Obama’s proposals is like trying to view the future using only a telephoto lens and selective focus: you miss the bigger picture. He’s going to get some things right, but he’s also going to screw up. And since he’s the focal point of the world’s most influential country — with the biggest economy and the biggest military — those screw ups could be monumental.
    It’s the President’s job to present ideas and proposals to the people of the United States, but it’s our job (and the job of our elected representatives and a free press) to meticulously pick those ideas and proposals apart for all possible consequences, not to just applaud and approve them. Besides, haven’t we had enough of that acquiescence during the last eight years? Progressive government is still government, and it’s not always here to help us.
    When clapping and cheering on one side drowns out (or ignores) criticism from the other side is precisely when we need to get concerned, and BnN provides a visual forum to make our voices heard, to listen to other voices, and to better see what’s going on.

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