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June 6, 2009

Obama and Wiesel at Buchenwald

Yes, there were many powerful images from Buchenwald yesterday.
There was the photo of Obama alone, in brilliant profile, setting a flower upon a plaque on the ground, a crematorium tower in the background. There were also images of Obama, Merkel, and writer, professor, activist, Nobel Laureate and Buchenwald survivor Elie Wiesel photographed from a distance through the camp’s symbolically-charged perimeter barbed wire.
What I found most significant, however, were the images capturing the connection between of Obama and Wiesel.

If empathy is dead (or at least, off the table), God help us all. In spite of the photo op, there was an engagement between these two men, a depth of feeling in the setting and in the confluence of purposes, that more than evoked the “e-word.” I don’t know. After Bush, perhaps it’s simply profound to consider we could have a president who can think and feel at the same time; who can listen without judging; who can learn; and who can deeply appreciate things like irony and pathos and character.
Maybe the affinity expressed in these pictures has to do with the coming together of two teachers. Certainly, Wiesel is as feeling and poetic an instructor one could find on the subject of inhumanity.
The more cynical among us would say that Obama’s visit to Buchenwald, after giving his major speech to the Arab world, largely involved a balancing of the scales. If that happens to be true, however, I think it goes well beyond that. I find Obama — in an instinctive response to the responsibility of the office — seeking out the major wounds, with all the anger and hurt and the prejudice they stir, in order — in incremental steps — to reveal them as common.
I especially recommend the video of Wiesel’s speech yesterday, especially if you’ve never heard him before. (Along the way, notice the somber expressions and reactions of Obama and, especially, Merkel.)

(For photo credits, click on captions below slide viewer)
  • elfpix

    Wiesel’s speech was heart rending. He marshalled all his inherent dignity to plead with Mr. Obama to repair his enormous guilt and pain for the way he let his father go.
    To me, however, the most interesting part was the postures of the other three. Obama stood in his minister posture – still, with hands folded and head bowed – throughout most of the 5 minutes that Wiesel spoke, while Merkel shifted her weight from foot to foot and looked up and down, clearly she was not so comfortable in her place and had not throught through what sort of presentation she wanted to put forth.
    Daily life is full of racket, all the sounds that we fill our space with, phones in pockets, endless “music” in public spaces, planes, trucks – rackety life. How Obama finds the silence to compose his self-presentation continues to interest me as I look through the daily images.
    And I wonder where his motivation resides – is he a truely great and deliberate actor or is there something he draws on which is so amazingly frequently absolutely pitch perfect? How can a person be so intelligent to be so pitch-perfect so much of the time? Alternatively, how can a person be so intelligent to act as though he is? Which is it? Is it all an act or is it real?

  • Diggitt

    I am a ministry student in my 60s and have met a lot of ministers. People like your description really do exist. There was time when it seemed that Bill Clinton was one of them; if he ever was, after Monica seduced him and Scaife et al tried to destroy him, he veered off to another place, to the place where he can accept tens of thousands sitting gassing with Dubya. But I think he had it in him, until then.
    If you look at old pics of Clinton, you can see him in exactly that same position. What he did, and what Obama does, is LISTEN. Being able to listen is the greatest gift these men have; without it, their intelligence would be wasted.
    The ability to temporarily ignore outside stimuli and focus on one person seems remarkable. Mothers do it all the time. It’s when men ignore their own power and grandeur to become temporarily selfless that it seems miraculous. You have to want to!

  • rob

    elfpix- I often ponder the same questions about our wonderful President. I am most proud when he is on the world stage and proves that yes WE Americans did a good thing on Nov 4, 2008 to choose him as our leader. As for his almost Zen like temperment and actions-plus intelligence. He had an extraordinary childhood with a mother that made sure her son saw the world through several eyes. Maybe that’s where it comes from. All I know is, we are lucky to have him not only as our President but as a fellow human being that walks this earth.

  • Jim Wilson

    When I see pictures like this, I can’t help but compare and contrast them with the Auschwitz picture of Cheney in his parka and boots, a bigger frown than usual on his face. The comparison really sums up the differences between the two administrations: Empathy and respect vs disgust and disdain.
    I especially like #7 and #8 in the Obama/Wiesel series.

  • elfpix

    Picture 5 is the first one I grabbed for my Obama screensaver. The expression on Obama’s face of simultaneously feeling Elie’s pain and the brightness of eternal hope in his eyes was so accurate to Wiesel’s expression. Still, it is a very complicated set of emotions in Obama’s face and that caused me to question again just how much is real and how much is oh, so carefully intentional.

  • Johanna

    This site is at its best when it tries to see through the pictures to how they are intended to strike us, or to manipulate us. It is weaker when trying to find the truth about character, or the heart of a person, in his photograph. May I remind you of the embarassing John Edwards episode, before which people were cooing about the wonderful marriage, and discerning the sorrow in his face as he faced the prospect of life “without Elizabeth”, as one post was titled.

  • charlie

    The flash player cuts off half the photos for me. Quite annoying.

  • bystander

    Like the commenters to this NYT article,

    U.S. May Permit 9/11 Guilty Pleas in Capital Cases
    The Obama administration is considering a change in the law for the military commissions at the prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, that would clear the way for detainees facing the death penalty to plead guilty without a full trial…

    I can no longer reconcile the person who listened to Elie Wiesel speak at Buchenwald, and delivered such soaring words in his Cairo, with the person who would consider death sentences for detainees without any kind of trial. I am slowly beginning to ask myself if McCain could have suggested anything more grotesque.
    I have no antidote for this level of cognitive dissonance.

  • Kathryn in MA

    Who better than Elie Wiesel to have the President’s ear in such a place. Indeed, Mr. Wiesel is teacher extraordinaire, and i am sure he is pleading with the President to change the inhumane parts of our nation’s policies. I hope much good comes from this meeting of minds.

  • yg

    where was wiesel’s empathy when he lent his support for an unnecessary war?

  • Sergei Andropov

    Still, it is a very complicated set of emotions in Obama’s face and that caused me to question again just how much is real and how much is oh, so carefully intentional.

    I suspect it is both.

    I can no longer reconcile the person who listened to Elie Wiesel speak at Buchenwald, and delivered such soaring words in his Cairo, with the person who would consider death sentences for detainees without any kind of trial.

    If the detainees plead guilty, what would be the reason for having a trial?

    I have no antidote for this level of cognitive dissonance.

    Patience, and faith. If there is one thing I have learned about Obama, it’s that he knows what he’s doing. Back when Obama said that he would not prosecute any CIA agents who had waterboarded, I was ready to take to the streets. Now, we know what he knew then, namely, that the people who had done the waterboarding were independent contractors, not CIA agents (who are mucch to competent to waste their time with that sort of thing). Likewise, if you look deeper into this particular case you find that Obama’s considered change is not quite what you think it is. The weight of the evidence against Khalid Sheikh Muhammad and Ramzi bin al-Shibh is beyond overwhelming. There is no way that they could conceivably be found innocent in any court except those which simply deliver whatever verdict is demanded, and everybody involved knows it, including KSM and bin al-Shibh. Most people in the West don’t know this, but before they were captured, those two men cooperated with Al Jazeera to make a full-length documentary on how they carried out the attacks.* That sort of evidence is sort of hard to argue against, so they want to plead guilty and get it over with.
    *AJ has it on YouTube with English subtitles but an Arabic title, which makes it all but impossible for non-Arabic speakers to find. Here is part 1, and here is part 2.

  • Tena

    Wonderful comment – just wonderful. Thank you.

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