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April 23, 2009

“Cabinet Room” Revisited

leibovitz cabinet room.jpg

I thought it was worth taking another look at the Leibovitz “Cabinet Room” portrait, which was not only shot right after the start of the Afghan invasion but was also captured — in terms of present context — four months after the Bybee torture memo was written. (Sorry I don’t have a larger size. Leibovitz and VF have been very protective of the image, even though it’s now been run twice by VF.)

Because the Bush Administration’s war crimes have survived so many periods of brief and intense attention while cycling through the public and media sphere, it’s hard to imagine a final reckoning this time. I do find solace in the fact, however, that history (as exemplified by the harder light being shined right now) will indeed have its multiple drafts.

For backstory on the photo (from Powell’s question to Leibovitz about what the group should try to communicate to Rummy’s little boo-boo), I urge you to read page 64-65 of Vanity Fair editor David Friend’s wonderful book: Watching The World Change: The Stories Behind The Images Of 9/11.

Obviously (and Powell is as good an example as any of the others), I think we’ve got more than “resolve” communicated here.

Also: 200904231350.jpg

(Image by Annie Leibovitz, second-time-around, from: Farewell to All That: An Oral History of the Bush White House - 2/09 VF.

  • DennisQ

    It looks like the cover of a rock album. I’m almost tempted to give the group a name, but I’m drawing a blank. The cover story indicates that they had to be prompted for what they were supposed to display – in this case, resolve. But what comes out of it now is the artiness of it. They are portraying their separate notions of resolve because that’s how they think resolute people look like.
    In actually, these people were anything but resolved. They actually had no idea what to do, and the zigzag policy that followed shows it. So the photograph reads, look like you know what you’re doing. There was a great deal of popular suspicion at the time that government leaders knew more than they are telling us. It now seems more likely they were making it up as they went along, and their best idea was to fake it.
    If you go from face to face you can tell there’s no common understanding of the group’s purpose. Powell looks like a cat who’s caught a mouse. Tenet looks like he’s playing Hamlet. Cheney’s face – his usual look of being smarter than everyone in the room – is difficult to interpret any other way.
    Dividing the picture into right and left, Bush has his muscle guys on his right, and his image guys on the left. Rumsfeld looks like he’s aware of being lumped in with Andrew Card and George Tenet, and doesn’t like it. The high points of the picture are Bush’s necktie, Cheney’s interlaced fingers, and Condi’s knees. I don’t have a theory about how they are related except the rock band analogy.

  • Gasho

    Bush looks like the guy with the least weight on his shoulders. He looks kinda carefree. He’s got the bright white shirt and open jacket. All the others are in black black (and shiny black).
    All I can do with this is say: idiots with big egos and no sense of right and wrong must not hold positions of power. Somehow the framers of the Constitution (conveniently pictured here) were unable to create a system to keep them out — despite the brilliance of the balance of powers, free elections, and impeachment provisions. If the framers could see this picture and know the story, they’d have created a new mechanism to defend against such systematized traitors as these.

  • Rima

    Bush with hands in pockets, faux casual, jacket pulled back, with alpha male (symbolic) red penis prominent.

  • lytom

    Should all be behind bars! Cabal.

  • JayDenver

    Is Bush sporting a POTUS belt buckle? And where Rumsfeld’s lapel flag?
    Powell and Rumsfeld are the bookends: Defense and State/Olive branch and Arrows, but since Powell was ex-military not so much Olive branch.
    Rock group name: Skulls and Bones

  • jtfromBC

    I’m still waiting for Condi’s head adornment to fall.

  • Kris

    The first thing I thought of when I saw this photo was The Sopranos, Cheney being Tony (I’ve never actually watched the show, so honestly I don’t know who the others could possibly be).
    I guess in a more general sense this just seems like some dark family photo (like some old creepy Victorian portrait).
    A part of the sinister quality for me comes from the fact that a lot of their suits seem to bleed into one another (where does Colin Powell end and Cheney begin? Ditto the four-headed monster on the far right).

  • wisewebwoman

    The lavender tie.
    Con’s knees.
    Alpha male stance of Dumbya – oblivious to all.
    Powell looks surprised in the act of doing something dirty.
    Rumsfeld off somewhere else.
    Cheney=Tony Soprano, Il Capo, made man supremo.

  • braidwood

    :( This just makes me sad in the context of the torture memos coming out. The torture memos don’t surprise me AT ALL, but they do remind me. :(
    I guess, in light of the memos coming out here is my take on the picture: These people look normal to me. This makes me sad. What evil people can do. How can normal humans do these things? Question of the ages, and that’s what I think when I see these normal looking humans who might very well be kind to their pets and have funny moments. It kind of makes me sick.
    Rock band name: Stinky Cheese
    Second glance: They do look kind of smug and self-important.

  • Marganonymous

    The first thing that came to mind was the Breakfast Club, with the actors doing their best to pose in character. “There’s a jock, a princess, a misfit, a nerd, and a lout,” (from the IMDB synopsis of the film).

  • ralph

    How does george manage to sprawl when he’s standing up?

  • yg

    none of them look hurried, inconvenienced or annoyed that they were being held back from more urgent matters, like the obama crew did.
    thanks for 8 long years of nothing to show for it but ruin, decay and destruction, guys.

  • yg

    which was not only shot right after the start of the Afghan invasion but was also captured — in terms of present context — four months after the Bybee torture memo was written.
    according to the woodward book, which was serialized in wapo, rumskull proposed poisoning the food that we were air-dropping in afghanistan. condi rice argued against the idea.

  • harla

    Sorry to be so juvenile, but is that an imaginary penis Rumsfeld is holding? I’m serious. It would explain a lot.

  • harla

    Bush: These are my bitches. Heh.

  • Marie

    Condi’s legs “make” the image, linking all kinds of visual directional lines. For one, it closes the circle of Bush, Cheney’s arms and herself, so our eyes circle around the three of them for a while. Cover her legs, and all you see are a bunch of heads in suits. Powell appears upstanding (hm, visual pun?) on the left creating a parallelogram with the central three, but the other three to right are visual mush, better read as a cadre rounding out the set and softening the visual center, than as individual points of interest.

  • Vulture Breath

    As usual, Bush looks like the only teenager in the room, with that “help, I don’t really belong here” look on his face, and that ridiculous belt buckle. And the outline of the door behind him has the same type of outline as Varsity letters that appear on high school sweatshirts. Rumsfeld has his Mount Rushmore face on. Cheney looks like he just finished torturing Khalid Sheikh Mohamed and his face says, “Yeah? Whaddya gonna do about it?” Tenet’s full-on granite face actually looks the most like a face you would see on a Vanity Fair cover – strong, full lipped, piercing eyes – a “cover boy.” Card looks like an afterthought, like he was slouching down the hall as Leibovitz was setting up and Bush shouted after him, “Card! Get in here!” Powell is the tallest figure, but has to squeeze sidways to make sure he’s in the frame.
    Then, there’s the scary comparison with the painting on the wall, which is presumably of our Founding Fathers doing something important and momentous (in a good way), as contrasted with the group we see here.

  • Russ Nichols

    You would think as super famous pro like Annie Leibovitz would have noticed the Greek Vase thingie growing out of Condi’s head. It’s the kind of goof that amateurs make all the time, a tree or a telephone pole growing out of dad’s head in the shot of the family on the front lawn. Or maybe she was making a statement of some kind but I can’t think what it is. The thingie could have been moved six inches to the left.

  • NS

    i think leibovitz must surely have been in accord with the placement of the vase (urn?) — with the POTUS’s shoulders accentuated so precisely by that doorframe, i’d wager there were zero surprises here for leibovitz, save perhaps the body language/expressions of the participants.
    i think both the vase perched atop condi and the chandelier installed in colin powell’s head may have initially been due to serendipity, rather than a directed part of the composition… but leibovitz chose to go with it, so it must have resonated for her. and it surely resonates with me: i’ve always felt in my most dark and cynical moments that both powell and rice were window dressing, furniture for these other maniacs — their blackness providing the bush administration both a perfect PC force-field and an opportunity for subconscious racism to manifest as scapegoating. it was a casting decision, reminiscent of the choice to cast judas as a black man in the movie version of jesus christ superstar.
    where the door frame echoes bush’s “squared shoulders,” his uprightness and agency, and the national passage (into war, into panic, from “pre” to “post-9/11″, etc) of which he was the figurehead — in contrast, powell is an appliance, a switch to be flipped; and condi is a vessel: lidded, easily manipulated… and funereal.
    re: JayDenver — yes, that is a POTUS belt buckle. i saw a big print of this at the leibovitz show at the legion of honor in san francisco; i can’t explain why, but when you see it in person, the buckle totally takes over the picture.
    i’m surprised no one has mentioned the family portrait aspect of this. hard for me to tell if bush is “the only teenager in the room” as Vulture Breath says above, with cheney and condi as mom and dad… or is it bush the husband, condi the seated (lowered) wife, and cheney the father/elder? there’s definitely a strange mirroring happening between cheney’s hands and condi’s legs… as if they were the arrows and olive branch in bush’s talons…

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