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September 6, 2012

Bill Clinton and Barack Obama: The “Empty Chair” in Charlotte Last Night

Brilliant, subtle, nuanced, on point.

Given the value of the real estate next to Michelle Obama, viewers couldn’t help but wonder where the president was as Bill Clinton delivered his phenomenal speech at the second evening of the DNC.  The space for his chair remained empty. Maybe the tension reported in the media was real, even though the White House revealed that Obama would watch Clinton’s speech “from the convention hall.” Maybe Michelle Obama was saving a seat for the man who wouldn’t sit down for Clinton, wouldn’t appear as a lesser light to the former two-term president.

Whatever the reason, for the second time in a week Barack Obama was invisible. The space between Michelle and Joe Biden was palpable, odd, noticeable.

Of course, Barack Obama dramatically hit the stage at the end of Clinton’s speech, famously hugging Clinton and shaking his hand. But in staging that empty space between the First Lady and the Vice President, the Obama election team visually managed the expectations of everyone in the hall and watching on TV.  It was subtle and brilliant. It was a dig at the republican schtick and it succeeded where Eastwood’s empty chair failed.

When Eastwood spoke to the empty chair he failed because the GOP was unable to give flesh to the man they opposed. The empty chair was only real because it was there beside Eastwood and it was vacant. But it didn’t work, didn’t resonate because it wasn’t based on an authentic image of the president.

But when viewers looked at the empty seat between Michelle Obama and Joe Biden, they looked for Barack Obama.  His presence was felt even though he was invisible. Instead of “what the hell is Eastwood doing,” each glimpse of the empty space begged an image of the man Clinton was extolling.  But the campaign team managed an incredible visual trick of playing off media rumors and expectation that Obama needed the Big Dog to help him out of his hole, to manage his image and make his case. The space remained empty: there were no images of Barack Obama gratefully sitting for Bill Clinton.  Instead, the flesh and blood president strolled out onto the stage at the end of the speech and received, of all things, a bow from his predecessor.

Nuanced stagecraft, but in a sea of authenticity, a brilliant dig at Tampa.

(credits: video still C-span, bottom photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images. Caption: Former U.S. President Bill Clinton greets Democratic presidential candidate, U.S. President Barack Obama (L) on stage during day two of the Democratic National Convention at Time Warner Cable Arena on September 5, 2012 in Charlotte, North Carolina. The DNC that will run through September 7, will nominate U.S. President Barack Obama as the Democratic presidential candidate.)

  • Gasho

    I hadn’t thought of the empty chair next to Michelle as reactivating this frame, but that’s a nice catch!

    What struck me like a ton of bricks was the HUGE LACK of symmetry between the conventions’ treatment and inclusion/exclusion of their former leaders. The giant impact made by Clinton only magnified the absence of Bush. It made the empty chair on the Republican stage seem like some sort of sad tribute to THEIR inability to include their own history and alumni because they’ve had such a horrific past. If Rove’s “TV with the sound off” still applies, the empty chair can only have that meaning at this point in my mind.

    I’d like to see a picture of Bubba on the huge screen juxtaposed with a picture of Eastwood’s empty chair.

    I also saw, in my mind’s eye, a picture of a lonely GW Bush drinking big gulps of his long island iced tea at the ranch, watching the speech all alone, bitter and angry.

  • marcsobel

    See! Clinton bows to foreign leader.

  • Cactus

    I’m not sure that I agree wth you all the way on this one.
    As media maven Rachel reported it, shortly before Clinton’s speech, NBC
    ‘announced’ there was a rumor that Obama might appear at the convention but
    didn’t know whether he would go to his box or not. Perhaps Michelle wasn’t sure
    either, thus the seat left empty. Or maybe Joe Biden said that the democrats
    should have an empty seat, too. As the fella said, sometimes, a cigar is just a

    Also, I wouldn’t see his appearance (or non-) in the seat as an insult
    to Clinton, providing he didn’t enter as Clinton was actually talking. Nor as
    being upstaged by Clinton; after all Obama IS the president and the seat, empty
    or not, is above the speaker’s platform, as was the royals in times

    Actually, I find it easier to think of the empty seat by
    Michelle as a sly joke on the teapublicans and their empty chair. As if to say,
    “See, we can have an empty chair, too, but we also have a president to put into

    The second photo, however, speaks paragraphs. It looks as if
    the bow has taken Obama by surprise and he immediately gets it and laughs at
    their private joke. What Clinton is saying by that bow is, “Have I redeemed
    myself now? Was that enough to make you forgive my zealousness for Hillary in
    ‘08?” It’s a private moment between two presidents in front of millions of

    • kidzmom1

      We watched the speech on NBC and I saw Obama react to something as he was walking toward Clinton; it wasn’t until I saw a wider shot that I saw the bow. It really did seem to take him by surprise and I would LOVE to know what he said as they embraced. I think you may be onto something Cactus….

  • Robert Hall

    Sorry Karen to disappoint you and all the liberals Eastwood’s empty chair did not failed. I see people all over town putting out empty chairs, beacuse they know we have an imposter in the White House.

    • kidzmom1

      You sure they aren’t just throwing them away? I see lots of empty chairs on the roadside all the time…

    • ksh01

      check republican pundits, the media in general, and twitter on that one. see if Eastwood wasn’t a cap on a general fail.

    • Godless Atheist

      Robert Hall, you need to improve your grammar. Also, why are you molesting a little boy in your facebook photo? That’s uncouth.

  • Cactus

    Anybody remember “Where’s the beef?” And that was before twitter etc. There is a difference between seeing the chair bit as an iconic spoof/satire whatever and seeing it as an effective political move. Was it effective for Romney? No. Was it effective as camp by Eastwood? Definitely. See — different.

  • Cactus

    The more I think about this photo, the more I think it was a
    subtle joke by Obama. Consider his twitter response to Eastwood’s chair — the
    photo of the back of Obama’s chair with him sitting in it and a sign pasted on
    the chair, “This chair is taken.” Consider that there were several references
    to Eastwood’s chair, oblique or otherwise, during the speeches at the
    convention. This seems to be a White House with a pretty good sense of humor so
    maybe, just maybe, they left the seat empty just so that people would be asking
    questions — what does it mean? Besides, what would be the point of trying to
    insult Clinton with the empty chair, but showing up on scene

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