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August 29, 2009

Kennedy Funeral: The Presidents

Clintons Bushs Obamas Kennedy.jpg

Just a few random thoughts on and associations to this photo from the Kennedy funeral:

>> Rather remarkable how non-neurotic everyone looks here. Such occasions will do that.

>> I’m really struck by Bush’s sensitivity. I mean, how many photos of him do you remember where he didn’t look either like an impish adolescent or a guy with a chip on his shoulder?

>> I heard Poppy Bush was ill, but where’s Barbara Bush?

>> I might not be completely crazy about Obama but I’m grateful, and proud as well, to see him in the “first pew” (knowing that the Clintons — inevitably, a team and a throwback to the past — could easily have been there instead).

>> This past week — awash as we’ve been in historical images and retrospectives — has pulled for some comparison between Jack, Bobby, Ted and Barack (especially considering how much Obama is loaded with charisma). As such, what stands out for me is how “un-Kennedyesque” Obama has been since the election. Maybe it’s his relative youth, but I find him overly tight and holding back emotionally quite a bit. I equate that “chin up” expression (in this instance, at least) with someone more comfortable in his head than in his heart or belly. (Wish I knew exactly what was going on that moment because Bubba and Dubya — perhaps finally freed to be a person — seem to be clearly riding it.)

Your thoughts?

(image: Reuters/Brian Snyder/Reuters. Basilica of Our Lady of Perpetual Help. Boston, Massachusetts. August 29, 2009)

  • Julia Grey

    Trying not to cry, all of them in their different ways.
    But I see what you mean about his “chin up” demeanor.

  • bystander

    Not much of an “on target” response to your question, but right off the bat, I have to acknowledge (just to get it out of the way) how closely I identify with Hillary Clinton’s and Michelle Obama’s expressions. I’ll set Laura Bush’s aside for the moment; cameras capture moments in time, and when you look at group shots, there is always one outlier. The moment is solemn (Hillary) and sad (Michelle). These two women have book-ended Kennedy’s passing in a pitch perfect way.
    I agree with you that Bill Clinton and GWB are “in the moment.” Each of them captures an element of the solemn/sad continuum. Obama looks detached to me. He is not “in the moment.” Maybe he’s trying to project the affect he thinks is appropriate for the occasion, without actually being in the occasion. He’s offered his Presidential look, perhaps. I compare his expression to his wife’s as opposed to the other two former presidents, because she has “camera/media” constraints that are more like his to face, and the comparison couldn’t be more stark.
    Obama is the only one in focus who looks “defensive” to me. And, I really wish I knew what drugs Laura Bush was taking. Is that woman on planet earth? Has Laura Bush ever been on planet earth even for a visit? Talk about always being caught with the off-kilter affect. It’d almost make you think photographers didn’t like her.

  • Johanna

    I think everyone in the picture has his or her typical expression. Bill Clinton has a familiar repertoire of expressions, which always involve an unusual degree of mouth control. His mouth is not “hanging free”, as are the mouths of the others. To me this can be a sign of someone in hiding. The mouth permits of more muscle control than the other features. It reveals a great deal, and to control it as much as he does is to forbid its revelations. Obama looks fine and perfectly appropriate, as does Michelle. Bush’s expression is one that you see on his father’s face from time to time, but now has come to characterize him as well. It’s a sorrowful look. Ex-prez Clinton is the one who stands out here as somehow different in demeanor from the others, less relaxed and spontaneous than the rest.

  • Ralph

    I can’t remember when Laura didn’t look exactly like that. Is that look non-neurotic or Stepford-wife?

  • jmac

    “The Clintons – a throwback to the past”. After four years of Obama you might wish for that throwback from the past – maybe his arrogant look is just that – Bush-type arrogance.

  • Jody

    I agree with Julia Grey — they’re trying not to cry, especially Bubba and Dubya. I’m imagining the shot was taken during Edward Kennedy Jr’s eulogy, when he described that climb up the snowy hill with his new artificial leg and remembered his dad saying, “I know you can do it. You can do anything.” Each of the men responding to that, to the presence of a supportive father, in his own different way.

  • sab

    Everyone else looks complicated. Michelle Obama simply looks sad.

  • Tena

    I just have to comment on this – what’s with the evil little smile on Laura Bush’s face?

  • Zoey n Me

    I don’t see what you all see. Look at Bush angling his head right to see something we can’t see in the picture. We can’t see what it is he’s looking at. Then look at Obama as he too has to move his head up to the right so he can see. Bill Clinton is at an angle where he can see (whatever the three P’s are looking at)directly in front of him, more or less, again, slightly right. We need to know what drew their attention because it makes perfect sense to me that Bush and Obama had to move their heads more to get a focus on the target. Even Hillary has a slight turn, Laura the other way, maybe she is looking at it between shoulders. That’s what I get from the photo.

  • g

    It is very odd that everyone except Laura is looking at the same thing – Laura is glancing sidelong at the photographer or something in that direction – momentarily distracted? I don’t know, but of all of them, it’s like she’s experiencing the whole occasion with a sense of detachment.
    With Clinton, I see his empathy and connection, he is probably identifying with something the speaker is saying, “feeling their pain” as it were. Obama is more cerebral, but you can sense his concentration – whether on what he’s listening to or on his upcoming eulogy, I couldn’t say. As for Bush, what strikes me about his face is how boyish it looks – boyish in expression. He looks like a child in church, trying to look appropriately solemn, behave properly and not show his boredom.
    Hilary looks dutiful, applying herself solemnly to the task at hand. Michelle is the one who really seems to exhibit sadness and grief – her eyes are deep, beautiful, and sorrowful.

  • thomas

    I’m not proud of it, but my immediate reaction was something along the lines of: I’m absolutely weary of the Bush family and the Clinton family and the Kennedy family. I follow what the Obamas do and say because I enjoy the illusion that America has some sort of healthy, representative democracy where talent will out, and it’s not really the same family of characters taking turns standing astride our national psyche like a collosus of vanity, decade after decade after decade after decade. That was my first reaction. I haven’t really had a second reaction yet.

  • JLW

    I was surprised to see this picture of Bush. I watched it live and most of the time Bush looked bored when the camera landed on him.

  • thomas

    And as an addendum to my comment above, it would appear that Jenna Bush will now be a correspondent for the Today show. Looking forward to following her career and life, as well as her future children’s careers as senators or whatever. I’m already as familiar with Liz Cheney’s suite of expressions and mannerisms as though she were a recurring sitcom character, so soon listening to Jenna and Liz chat will be as familiar and nuanced as a Seinfeld rerun.

  • yg

    i thought i read carter was attending. didn’t see him.

  • yg

    a bevy of vips scheduled to arrive, you’d think the church would have polished the wood. distracting.

  • yg

    I equate that “chin up” expression (in this instance, at least) with someone more comfortable in his head than in his heart or belly.
    i equate it with a defensiveness, coupled with guilt, knowing he could have done more to make reforms a higher priority (why was cap & trade passed before healthcare reforms?), something he should have had completed before ted died. that was the one gift he could have given to him while the senator was still alive, the vision of ted’s life’s work finally realized, but obama blew it.
    max baucus should be made to pay, along with every other senator on the finance committee. they should be hounded day and night, offices and homes picketed, for denying kennedy (and the country) this gift.

  • yg

    clinton? who gave us DOMA and DADT? who gave us NAFTA and blew open the doors wide open for china? gave us the deregulation that lead to enron and current wall street meltdown?
    now, not only does obama have to clean up after bush, he has to clean up after the mess clinton left behind.
    clinton couldn’t even be bothered to pass gender pay parity.

  • jmac

    You blame Max Baucus? Obama could get a public option through with 51 senate votes in a second – reconciliation.
    But he’s not because he was NEVER on board for universal health care – he slammed Hillary with Republican attack ads and clearly stated his views in the primary debates.
    I hope he proves me wrong but the odds are he’s not going to. And that Gang of Six that represent six small states that represent less than 3% of the population – why should they have any say on anything? Let’s hope Obama’s not listening to them.

  • yg

    mac, obama laid the groundwork to pass the bill via reconcilation months ago, back in april.

  • yg

    from an article dated april 30th,
    Yesterday, when Congressional negotiators agreed on the budget bill, they gave President Obama virtually everything he wanted, including the fast-track budget reconciliation rules that smooth the way for passage of his healthcare initiative.

  • yg

    But he’s not because he was NEVER on board for universal health care
    republicans & fox viewers will tell you different. they keep playing that clip, from years ago, of obama favoring single payer.

  • yg

    that said, i still appreciate the integrity from obama in his refusal to exploit expressions of grief for personal, political gain. as opposed to the way clinton would act out his expressions when he knew the cameras were on him.
    here is obama after a private meeting with vicki:

    the fire in the belly that’s missing and that people expect for this fight, i think, will come later. with this death fueling our resolve.

  • TFitz

    I always found Obama’s chin up expressions irritating. Video from yesterday’s funeral service, pretty frosty between Michelle Obama and Hilary Clinton. On camera, no interaction, and Michelle often just looks angry (and sad).

  • Sandra

    Laura might be remembering hurricaine ‘Corina’ – no brain between those ears, lipstick always perfect. The expressions invite thoughts on each pondering their own deaths. We know what former presidents’ policies brought forth. Obama’s still in the making, and so far disappointing (to me). Hiliary still making news (Hondurans stand strong). Carter and Rosyln looked out of it yesterday, and in this picture they are literally out of it.

  • Progressive Mom

    yg — Both Carters were in the first pew, next to the Bidens. An interesting position: one might have assumed that the Clintons would be in the first pew, either because she’s in the administration, because the Kennedys were (once?) close to the Clintons or because he is the most recent past Democratic president. But it was the Carters in the front row.
    That said, the only time I really noticed the Bush’s were before the service started. The C-Span camera caught Jill Biden leaning over the pew to speak with Hillary Clinton — a bit of a stretch. The Bush’s were listening to the conversation (they couldnt’ help it, given their positions) and they both looked like they had stepped into something foul. For several seconds, they really looked like they were smelling “poo”, while Jill Biden was shown talking gregariously and effusively.
    Wish I was a fly on the pew….

  • Vulture Breath

    They’re looking to the right, which means they’re listening to one of the musical numbers, either Yo-Yo Ma, Placido Domingo, or Susan Graham. I did notice when Graham was singing Ave Maria, which was exquisite, the camera went to Bill Clinton and he had a look somewhere between religious reverie and sexual ecstasy (yes, it was sung very beautifully). I conclude from everyone’s expressions that they’re listening to the Ave Maria, because neither Yo-Yo nor Placido was as beautiful or purely emotional. (And yes, Jimmy and Roslyn Carter were sitting at the far left of the front pew. Carter listened intently.)
    I think Obama’s chin-up position is just an awareness of someone who always has a camera on him. I don’t divine much more from it. Laura Bush’s perpetual smile I also don’t see much to be derisive about. She always looks placid. I guess I’m one of the few who doesn’t automatically assume she’s on mood-enhancers or some other pharmaceutical, just because she looks placid.

  • terry

    You know…. I see this image as the difference between the past and the present. You can bet that Bush and Clinton were looking at their own lives and wondering how they measured against Teddy’s. I see Obama looking to an unknown future and hoping it would be as powerful. Bush’s face has a lot of regrets; his nose and eyes are red but his face is straight. Clinton, because he is a smart man, recognizes the past for what it is… gone.

  • janinsanfran

    Actually, that sense of a person in his head, not heart, that the Bag has about Obama, is exactly how I remember Jack Kennedy. We remember the emotions we had when he was killed, not the man as he presented himself to the world.

  • yg

    we are forgetting obama’s voice did choke with emotion during the first half of his speech.

  • g

    My understanding is it’s a relatively poor church in a poor neighborhood…. probably doesn’t have much in the way of resources

  • Tena

    Personally, I like having a president who lives in his head, not his gut, like Bush.

  • shane

    That’s what I saw, too. He looked bored, distracted, and very ADD, as his beady little eyes darted all over the place. He was there because protocol demanded it,but his pathological lack of empathy – all too familiar from eight years of his compassion-free occupancy of the Oval Office – was reinforced by his expression every time he was onscreen. As always, I had to either put my hand in front of my face or look away.

  • Ryan

    I think Laura Bush is looking the same way as everyone else (the blurring doesn’t help), but why is she smiling?

  • Nell

    I’m grateful, and proud as well, to see [Obamas] in the “first pew” (knowing that the Clintons — inevitably, a team and a throwback to the past — could easily have been there instead)
    This response reveals an almost complete lack of familiarity with protocol and politics. There is no universe in which the Clintons could easily have been in the first pew instead.
    Obama is the sitting president, who outranks any past president attending. He was also the candidate that the Kennedys backed over Clinton, at a crucial moment in the primaries.

  • yg

    i think she is saying isn’t it odd that the carters outranked the clintons for seats in the first pew.
    did ted kennedy weigh in on planning of seat placement? if he did, this reveals his feelings for how he regarded the clintons.

  • yg


  • Molly

    I don’t think it would be possible for Obama to “show his heart” considering all the people on both sides of the aisle who are working so hard to rip it out of him and pull him down.
    I interpret the “chin up” gesture as “people, I’m trying to breathe here!”
    I’m surprised the man can still walk upright, considering.

  • Hippocrates

    I have to say that the above comments seem to say more about the commenters than they do about the above image. The faces of presidents past and present (and their spouses) evoke strong emotional reactions.

  • yg

    oh, this is bag saying, with a twist of fate, there was a chance hillary could have won the democratic primaries instead, hence the presidency.

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