Greetings! You are reading an article from The Mudville Gazette. To reach the front page, with all the latest news and views, click the logo above or "main" below. Thanks for stopping by!
December 1, 2009
Right FaceBy Greyhawk
To the left: a little reminder that Barack Obama didn't invent the photo op with troops. He does, however, appear to be determined to perfect the art.
And tonight from West Point you should see an example of the state of the art. If all goes well it will look easy - but behind the scenes it's anything but. Making it look easy is the business of the pros, and requires tight coordination between the White House, news reporters, technicians, and a cast of thousands. For those interested in a possible career in that service, or even those interested in a bit of how it's done, here's a look at just that, and a few lessons learned along the way.
President Obama to the troops: "You guys make a pretty good photo op!"
An obvious truth, and a great laugh line - and the troops chuckled on cue. That visit to Osan Air Base in Korea came at the end of President Obama's Asian tour, so certainly the president was due for a bit of lighthearted cheer.
Perhaps even overdue. Previous photo ops with troops had certainly been far from lighthearted affairs. The Asian trip was sandwiched between two - the first at Elmendorf Air Force Base in Alaska, where the mood remained somber: "Two days ago, we gathered at Fort Hood and we honored 13 Americans taken from us," the president told the troops assembled there. "Soldiers and caregivers; mothers and fathers; husbands and wives; sons and daughters, brothers and sisters."
But it was a speech about strength and recovery, and the president praised the troops for "the spirit that I see in all of you" - including their sense of service, their sense of responsibility, and "your sense of unity -- coming from every corner of the country, from every color and every creed and every faith and every station -- to take care of each other, and to serve together, and to succeed together, as Americans."
It seems easy - but the president is a pro, and no one rises to even the lowest elected office without the ability to hit the right notes in a public speech. But there's a tremendous amount of stagecraft involved in such an event, and a fine but hard-to-define line between the right way and the wrong way to put on such a show. While much of that is intangible and intuitive there are aspects of the job that can be learned. Those who aspire to careers as White House public affairs team members or New York Time reporters would do well to note a great "do and don't" example of the difficult balance found in the New York Times.
The occasion was coverage of the president's recent trip to Dover for his photo op with the flag-draped caskets of servicemembers killed in Afghanistan. The "don't" version could be found in a quote from the Times' original story:
The images and the sentiment of the president's five-hour trip to Delaware were intended by the White House to convey to the nation that Mr. Obama was not making his Afghanistan decision lightly or in haste.
Of course they were - but you don't ever actually put that in writing, even if it's a direct quote from the White House press release or your friend on the PR team. Fortunately someone at the White House or the Times was able to accomplish a face-saving rapid rewrite, and the original quote was changed to a fantastic "do" version: "The image of the commander in chief standing on a darkened tarmac, offering a salute to one of the soldiers, highlighted the poignancy of a decision he is facing."
And the Times more than made up for that fumble with last weekend's coverage of Joe Biden's trip to Iraq last Fourth of July. "Emanuel also had the bright idea of sending Biden to Iraq for a July 4 photo op with the troops," we learn. And according to the Times, Biden handled Rahm's task like a pro.
Biden shook every hand, and threw his arm around every shoulder -- hundreds and hundreds of them. "How are you, man?" he cried, with fresh joy, to each table of soldiers. "Did you get a picture of me?" A soldier said politely, "Look this way, sir," and Biden, who has the blinding white teeth of a starlet, whirled around with a huge smile.
In years past Multi-National Corps-Iraq has celebrated the July Fourth holiday in Baghdad by putting on the largest re-enlistment ceremonies in history, the 2008 version beat the record set a year before. You couldn't pay the New York Times to cover a story like that, but those events made for great sound bites: "I'll always remember the message you've sent to the adversary," MNF-I Command Sergeant Major Marvin Hill told the 1200 newly re-enlisted troops, "the same guys and girls who've been kicking your butt for the past five years signed up for some more." But for whatever reason there would be no re-up ceremony for Biden's visit. Instead a ceremony more in tune with the Obama administration's emphasis on the military as diverse, multi-cultural institution was staged.
"It was quite a sight," the New York Times Magazine reported in this week's cover story on the July Fourth event, "crisp ranks of African and Asian and Latino men and women lined up beneath a giant American flag hanging from the ceiling."
The optics were everything the White House could have hoped for. Biden traveled to Al Faw Palace, a gigantesque Saddam Hussein-era structure once used for Baath Party functions, in order to administer the oath of American citizenship to 237 soldiers who had joined the military as immigrants.
And certainly to Rahm's relief, the closest Biden came to a gaffe was a subtle confession that he felt people might ridicule his national pride: "As corny as it sounds," he told the assembled troops, "damn, I'm proud to be an American."
Rahm's a pro, too - but he had to have been a little nervous when Biden (perhaps feeling the need to portray himself to the room full of multi-hued warriors as more than just a clean, articulate white man with the blinding white teeth of a starlet) went off script, sharing one of his favorite war stories highlighting his long experience with the troops. In this there I was tale, taking place years before during a visit to war-torn Kosovo, Biden describes how he was able to lecture his driver about the greatness of America, and his nation's failures:
And while they might have been on edge, obviously no one panicked or "accidentally" unplugged the mic, and as it turned out the story wasn't even close to some of Biden's more regrettable moments on stage. When a guy like Biden speaks, you keep professionals standing by.
When it comes to putting on a great PR photo opportunity, you might think the nation's military academies would have perfected the art, that President Obama has nothing to worry about in that regard as he prepares to address the nation from West Point. But even those who's job is to teach still have things to learn.
And we can all learn something from this recent example from Annapolis. It's another great do and don't lesson - and a fantastic reminder that Rahm Emanuel, the president, or the vice president shouldn't have to personally be involved in the photo op in order for those in charge to do the right thing.
Just a few weeks ago, alert Naval Academy leadership noticed that the volunteer members of an Academy color guard lacked color. For routine occasions with no real media coverage that's not necessarily a big deal, but the event this particular squad had volunteered and prepared for was a World Series game. Fortunately, before it was too late,
Senior staff members reviewed the names of those who wanted to go, all white males, and decided that the group should better reflect the academy's diversity.
...so two of the white guys were tossed off the team, and some non-vols were selected to go in their place.
"Two white, male members of the color guard learned Oct. 28 they were being replaced with a white woman, Midshipman 2nd Class Hannah Allaire, and a non-white man, Midshipman 2nd Class Zishan Hameed, on orders of the school's administration, according to an internal e-mail message provided to Navy Times by an academy professor."You might think the US Naval Academy should probably get a Presidential Unit Citation for this one - but here's where the "don't" kicks in. Leadership failed to follow through and make sure Zishan Hameed packed his shoes:
As it turned out, the color guard still ended up all white because the male replacement forgot parts of his uniform.
Most embarrassing (imagine if Joe Biden's Kosovar driver was watching) - especially when you consider that
Academy leaders, on their official Web site, call diversity "our highest personnel priority."
A minor flub, perhaps - it's not like baseball is a national pastime in America any more. But perhaps that lack of attention to detail (or expectation of personal responsibility) is another reason President Obama chose West Point rather than Annapolis as the backdrop for his speech on Afghanistan.
We hope you've learned a bit from our presentation. But enough lessons for now - showtime is nearly upon us. As you view the president's speech tonight (and we'll have it available here - you're welcome to join us, but we'll be more focused on what he says than the theatrics involved) remember that although it looks easy, it isn't. A million little things can go wrong, even when there's literally an Army involved in making it right.
Posted by Greyhawk / December 1, 2009 3:37 PM | Permalink
The Commander in Chief addresses the troops at Elmendorf Air Force Base, Alaska, November, 2009 The title isn't about planes - it's about the hard working folks behind the scenes. Like the White House aides you never see who struggle to make sure ever... Read More
November 26, 2010
I think anyone who's ever pondered the "comment" option - once only available on blogs and bulletin boards, now ubiquitous on almost any web site - will appreciate this:
The so-called faculty of writing is not so much a faculty of writing as it is a faculty of thinking. When a man says, "I have an idea but I can't express it"; that man hasn't an idea but merely a vague feeling. If a man has a feeling of that kind, and will sit down for a half an hour and persistently try to put into writing what he feels, the probabilities are at least 90 percent that he will either be able to record it, or else realize that he has no idea at all. In either case, he will do himself a benefit.
That's wisdom from the past, captured for posterity at the US Naval Institute, shared via the web on the institute's 137th anniversary.
From their about page:
"The Naval Institute has three core activities," among them, History and Preservation:
The Naval Institute also has recently introduced Americans at War, a living history of Americans at war in their own words and from their own experiences. These 90-second vignettes convey powerful stories of inspiration, pride, and patriotism.
Take a look at the collection, and you'll see it's not limited to accounts from those who served on ships at sea, members of the other branches are well-represented.
I'm fortunate to have met USNI's Mary Ripley, she's responsible for the institute's oral history program (and she's the daughter of the late John Ripley, whose story is told here). She also deserves much credit for their blog. ("We're not the Navy nor any government agency. Blog and comment freely.") We met at a milblog conference - Mary knew (and I would come to realize) that milbloggers are the 21st-century version of exactly what the US Naval Institute is all about. Once that light bulb came on in my head, I mentioned a vague idea for a project to her - milblogs as the 21st century oral history that they are.
"Put that in writing," she said (of course - see first paragraph above!) - and here's part of the result.
Shortly after the first tent was pitched by the American military in Iraq a wire was connected to a computer therein, and the internet was available to a generation of Americans at war - many of whom had grown up online. From that point on, at any given moment, somewhere in Iraq a Soldier, Sailor, Airman or Marine was at a keyboard sharing the events of his or her day with the folks back home. While most would simply fire off an email, others took advantage of the (then) relatively new online blogging platforms to post their thoughts and experiences for the entire world to see. The milblog was born - and from that moment to this stories detailing everything from the most mundane aspects of camp life to intense combat action (often described within hours of the event) have been available on the web...
And et cetera - but since you're reading this on a milblog, you probably knew that. And you know that milblogs aren't just blogs written by troops at war, that many friends, family members, and supporters likewise documented their story of America at war online in near-real time, as those stories developed.
The diversity in membership of that group is broad, the one thing we all have in common is the impulse to make sense of the seemingly senseless, and communicate the tale - for each of us that impulse was strong enough to overcome whatever barriers prevent the vast majority of people from doing the same. Everyone at some point has some vague idea they believe should be shared - we were the people who, from some combination of internal and external urging, found and spent those many half hours persistently trying to write it down.
But where will all that be in another 137 years? Or five or ten, for that matter. That's something I've asked myself since at least 2004 - when I wrote this:
Membership in the ghost battalion has grown in the years since, and an ever growing majority of those abandoned-but-still-standing sites are vanishing. Have you checked out Lt Smash's site lately? How about Sgt Hook's? If you're a long-time milblog reader you know the first widely-read milblog from Operation Iraq Freedom and the first widely-read milblog from Afghanistan are both gone from the web. If you're a relative newcomer to this world you may never even have heard of them - or the dozens upon dozens of others who carried forth the standard they set down.
If you have a vague notion that something should be done about that, (a notion I've heard expressed more than once...) then you and I and the good folks at the US Naval Institute are in agreement. Preserving the history documented by the milbloggers is just one of the goals of the milblog project, the once-vague idea that we're now making real.
And it's a big idea, if I say so myself - too big to explain in one simple blog post, so stand by for more. Likewise, it's too big a task to be accomplished by just one person. So if you're a milblogger (and exactly what is a milblogger? is a topic for much further discussion on its own) I'm asking for your help. All I'll really need is just a little bit (maybe just one or two of those half hours...) of your time, and your willingness to tell the tale.
We've already made history, it's time to save it.
(More to follow...)
The Mudville Gazette is the on-line voice of an American warrior and his wife who stands by him. They prefer to see peaceful change render force of arms unnecessary. Until that day they stand fast with those who struggle for freedom, strike for reason, and pray for a better tomorrow.
Furthermore, I will occasionally use satire or parody herein. The bottom line: it's my house.
I like having visitors to my house. I hope you are entertained. I fight for your right to free speech, and am thrilled when you exercise said rights here. Comments and e-mails are welcome, but all such communication is to be assumed to be 1)the original work of any who initiate said communication and 2)the property of the Mudville Gazette, with free use granted thereto for publication in electronic or written form. If you do NOT wish to have your message posted, write "CONFIDENTIAL" in the subject line of your email.
Original content copyright © 2003 - 2011 by Greyhawk. Fair, not-for-profit use of said material by others is encouraged, as long as acknowledgement and credit is given, to include the url of the original source post. Other arrangements can be made as needed.
Contact: greyhawk at mudvillegazette dot com