Too Small for the Desk?

There’s already a lot of disappointment being expressed about the substance of Obama’s Oval Office Oil speech last night. I’m not going to pile on about that. Instead, I thought I’d make one or two comments on the “atmospherics”—which, I think, contributed to the bad reception his speech has received.

The framing of the image was terrible. It made him appear physically small, which is the last impression we needed to get from our president in this crisis. The camera seemed to be shooting him from a position slightly higher than his head, which put unnecessary space above him in the composition, and forced him to tilt his head up ever so slightly. That air above him, combined with the slight upward tilt of the head, contributed to the subtextual impression that he was a child explaining himself to a parent, not a man leading a nation. I had to keep reminding myself, “The man is tall; I know he’s tall; I’ve seen him in enough other contexts to tell me he’s tall; why does this picture show me a figure who’s too small for his desk?” Of course, the real problem with the image is that “too small for the desk” is an all-too-clear metaphor for “not up to the job.”

And he couldn’t stop gesturing with his hands. Every phrase had another manual punctuation. That might work in a campaign speech. But in this context, the gestures said, “I’m not confident that my words are going to carry the day here. I think you’re going to see through the emptiness of the words. Better get the hands going.” What we needed was cool, calm, collected, composed. This was not that.

My wife listened to the speech on the kitchen radio while I watched it on television. As soon as it was over, we compared notes, and she thought it was a good speech. So this might be one of those “people who heard the Kennedy-Nixon debates on the radio thought that Nixon won” kind of things. In any case, I wasn’t heartened by what I saw on TV last night. I was frightened.

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