Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Common Sense, Not Very Common

Politics never really fails to amaze, right? I mean, look at last week’s history making victory and the way there was such good response to it. With the exception of Sean, Rush, and probably the Governor of Alaska, there was an amazing outpouring of very richly textured goodwill (uh oh, now I’m using words that the masters of the Computer world used to use in describing a rich ‘online experience’ .. sorry.) Of course for President-elect Obama, the real work is now just starting. If you thought getting elected was tough, you should try Governance! Iris’ latest book “So You Think You Can Be President” is pointed at that very gap. It’s about the realization that the skills needed to govern aren’t necessarily the same ones you might have needed to be elected. Sure, you need a coherent set of plans, you need good organization and people in the field, but beyond that, the thing which so often ends up missing, and which the book goes out of its way to point out in a rather hilarious way, is the lack of Common Sense. People become far too involved with their titles and a desire to accrue power, and whether or not they think they’re being screwed by either a subordinate or a boss, to spend proper time working on the things which matter. Such is life in Government.

Some years the ‘things which matter’ are a little more difficult to define. Jimmy Carter’s transition was seen as a breath of fresh air after the Nixon years (though Ford did do a good deal to leaven that); from Reagan to Bush I was more like an orderly continuation than it was a real change of power. From Bush I to Clinton it was “the Economy, stupid” much as it is now, though in comparison with today’s outsized distress, 1993 actually seems benign. Barack Obama, having conquered all the electoral ghosts which seemed to line up against him – age, the Bradley factor, race in general, experience – now faces the serious issues of tackling the things, limited though they may be, which a President can do to try and put things back on an even keel. It’s not as if you can’t just list the problems facing the incoming President. But let me remind you it’s not simply the incoming administration who is facing these issues. For the last 7 ¾ years, the current folks have been in charge. Aside from the obvious good deeds in Africa on Malaria for which kudos should be offered, there are a host of things which seem either demonstrably worse than they were in ’01, or simply victims of neglect. Faced with a concern about keeping the ‘base’ happy, far too much time was spent on spurious tasks (American participation in foreign birth control programs, for example) which were not only backward thinking, but showed a waste of time and energy from far more pressing issues.

This may seem petty on my part, but I did run up against one of those moments last week at the White House. And at the outset let me say I have never entered those hallowed grounds without feeling a particularly strong sense of history, and obligation to act in a manner befitting someone who reveres the institution of the Presidency, and the grounds which house it. I first went to the White House in July of 1967 as a 20 year old intern for the TIME Photo department. It was, for a college Junior, a big deal. My first event there was a South Lawn arrival ceremony for LBJ to welcome the King of Thailand, then a U S ally in Vietnam. It was a full blown State arrival: trooping the line of soldiers with military bands playing, thoughtful speeches about the friendship of both countries. It made an impression. I have never gotten blasé about going inside those wrought iron gates. Even in the difficult days of August 1974, when, because of Nixon’s desire not to be seen crossing from the EOB to the West Wing, White House guards locked all of us inside the Press Room, I felt that I was in the right place. (Ten minutes later the doors opened, but as it was just days before his resignation, we took it very personal.)

Before me, dozens of world class journalists, correspondents and photographers have worked the White House. When you walk that hall from the Press Room to the Oval Office, you can almost feel the spirit of Teddy Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, U.S. Grant, and FDR beside you. So, with that in mind I have always tried to comport myself in a manner befitting someone who respected the terrain. Clothes have sometimes been an issue. But I have always believed that the standard bearer in White House photographic protocol was Dirck Halstead, for twenty years a TIME photographer covering the White House, with more Presidential cover pictures than anyone else. Dirck remains a class act, even as he has morphed into video, and multi media. His hallmark threads were freshly ironed jeans, and brightly polished Gucci shoes. No one could ever say Dirck wasn’t ‘turned out.’ He actually carried the Robert Redford look better than anyone I’ve ever known. (The “Robert Redford look” is defined thus: you arrive at a semi fancy restaurant, wearing jeans and nice Gant lavender shirt. The Maitre’de informs you that you’re not properly attired. You counter “Well if Robert Redford got out of a cab dressed in Jeans, and walked in, would you have a table for him?” The answer is usually “well, perhaps…” and the next rejoinder is “Well, I’d like to have HIS table….”) But while jeans can make the stone mason, or jeans can make the plumber, or jeans can make the paving engineers, they can, if worn nicely, freshly, impart a look of serious intent. I have always felt that if I was reasonably put together, I could pass.

Former Washington Times/Newsweek editor Arnaud de Borchgrave – who spent decades scooting from one coup d’etat and civil war to the next, used to say that if he traveled with a pair of combat fatigues and a tuxedo, there wasn’t anything he wouldn’t be prepared for. I accept that idea, except that most tuxedo jackets have lousy pockets for storing a lens or light meter. So, perhaps more often than we should, there are moments when some of us end up at the White House in blue jeans. Freshly laundered, yes, and usually in the company of a $60 shirt. So last Thursday, at what will no doubt be President Bush’s last cabinet meeting, Paul Richards of AFP and I were singled out of the crowd of a dozen still photographers, and refused entry to the photo opportunity in the Cabinet Room. Like Paul, I have been on the road for months doing the campaign. We were both surprised, unhappily, when we were informed that with just months to go in an 8 year tenure, the White House has decided to ban jeans from the Oval Office, and (apparently) the Cabinet Room if worn by photographers. (There is also a ban on white sneakers… not brown, blue or black, just white.) Now, I don’t really feel like I’m on very strong ground here, in terms of protesting that this seems quite arbitrary. I honor the decorum of the White House. My question is this: (and here is where the question of Common Sense enters:) if this was so important an issue, why did it take Seven and ½ years for it to become Policy? Are banning Jeans in the Cabinet room the solution to a failed housing market, falling real estate, diminished economic growth, stymied military action in Afghanistan, a resurgent Russia? Well, maybe not. But if they are, wouldn’t it have been smart to start enforcing the rule at the beginning of the term, when it could have really done some good? Here we are nearly 8 years into the new decade, and NOW we have to deal with the Jeans issue. I thought about trying the Redford argument, but I realized that even Bob might have found himself cooling his heels with us back in the Press room. At least he could have signed a few autographs. Me? I’m headed to Steve & Barry’s to score a couple of pair of chinos. In this wacky and unpredictable world, you clearly can’t have enough pairs of tan slacks. And I’m happy to do whatever I can to further the cause of (how did Miss South Carolina put it?) “...U S Americans should help... build up South Africa and The EYE-rack..so we will be able to build up our future” We’re just sayin’…..David


Anonymous said...


Your are my fashion totem.

W now an American Gothic

brendan said...

It's happened to me too, booted from the Oval for wearing jeans. You make me feel better about myself.

Anonymous said...

Remember, he was going to "restore dignity to the Oval Office."

I wonder if they didn't allow the Northwestern women's lacrosse team into the Oval Office when they visited a few years ago.

Anonymous said...

"No shoes, no shirt,no service"
Heck, even at stores there's no mention of slacks! lol :)

I suppose gone are the days of simply just stuffing a dress shirt and tie in a camera bag, just in case..And these last minute policy changes make about as much sense as any other lately at 1600 Penn!

Walter B

Colors Of Life Photography said...

Good Day from Atlanta..David, I came across your work as I am a photography student in Atlanta. Just wanted to say how awesome your images are and I love the video about the Bejing Olympics. If you get a chance, I have a couple of old post on my blog about covering the funeral of a fallen American soldier and some of the photos I was able to get on election night inside Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta with the King Family and such. As a student, I was able to worm my way in but was glad I did. Just wanted to say how inspirational your work is.

Keep on keeping with the Blue Jeans...

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