The mix of disgust, laughter and goofy gossip at the body ogling photo of Obama on the beach at Hawaii seemed more than justified. The most charitable that could be said was that it was a deathly slow news week and the shot was manna from heaven to stir up a little interest and hopefully controversy. That would drive thousands more to the pack of websites displaying the picture.
Normally, the momentary titillation would quickly pass. But then the Washington Times jumped into the fray and claimed that the shot was stage managed. It's not far-fetched that the shot was taken with a wink and nod from the president elect. The best politicians rank up there with Hollywood's best image massagers in playing the legions of on the prowl for sensationalism paparazzi, and the star's publicists, and promo flacks for all their worth to insure that they always are shown and seen in the most flattering poses.
The Obama picture is no different than the stagy photos of JFK's topless romps on a beach with hordes of admiring onlookers in tow. Or Reagan's man on the white horse shots complete with his cowboy hat and sequined shirts. Or W. Bush biking and jogging around the Crawford, Texas ranch. Heck, even Abe Lincoln had the good sense to know that a president that looks vibrant and healthy is good for the image and the public. He didn't scotch efforts to hype him as a guy who could swing a mean ax at the rail ties and a woodpile.
It didn't much matter whether the Obama shot was an unguarded moment shot, or not, it was a great looking shot.
And it conveyed several political messages. One is that this is a president who's at the top of his game, fitness and health wise. Another is that this is a president that looks a lot different than many of his aging, bulging, and cellulite entombed predecessors. The other, and most important message, is that a healthy looking president can provide just the right tonic for nursing a sick economy back to health.
Yet, there's another reason that Obama's pecs and abs got more gawks than the gawks at a near nude Britney. Obama is the hottest packaged commodity on the planet. He could sneeze and it would be news. The public and media obsession though is a double edged sword. The positive even celebratory spins that Obama or any other mediagenic figure gets today can quickly morph into nagging, backbiting, and hectoring of them if the fawned over figure stumbles. The fall from media grace is swift, ugly and brutal. Their real or manufactured faults, quirks, and missteps that were routinely ignored, downplayed, or papered over get blown-up and harped on incessantly. The public quickly takes the cue and turns the one time object of adulation into an object of scorn.
One need look no further than the man who Obama will succeed. After 9/11 Bush's media popularity soared to Olympian heights. He could do wrong. The scale of adulation was never justified. This was a national crisis and the public always rallies behind their leader in crisis. But the shock over the terror attacks was so great, few would dare run the grave risk of being tagged as unpatriotic, a traitor, or worse, a terrorist apologist for criticizing the prez.
It took Bush's colossal bungles, bumbles of a hopelessly failed and flawed war, his sleep at the wheel Republican corruption scandals and his fiddle while the economy and Wall Street burned to mercifully to lift the public fog. That fate is not in the immediate media cards for Obama. Whether staged or not, the topless shot made the right political statement that a president with a body that exudes health and confidence will exude the same for the nation. Whether that eventually proves to be true or not, it sure didn't hurt to get the tongues clicking about that shirtless body.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His forthcoming book is How Obama Won (Middle Passage Press, January 2009).