The Fine American Art of Saying Hello
Barack Obama didn’t think about it too long before shaking his head. “No, I don’t want to do that,” he said.
I was a little surprised. It was October 21, 2008, and by that point we’d done a lot together. We’d visited hundreds of diners, state fairs, parades, and high school gymnasia, and let’s not forget the factories. Together we’d inhaled the fumes of a thousand factories. (Traveling press secretary Jen Psaki always said that she, the president, Reggie Love, and I were all destined to die of some mysterious disease caused by a toxic mixture of glass, metal, and drywall particles.)
So I was slightly taken aback by Obama’s refusal. Surely my question hadn’t been that intrusive. Besides, the junior senator from Illinois was used to my intrusions. I’d already ruined plenty of amazing moments, like right after the nomination speech at Invesco Stadium, when Barack was hugging his VP nominee. I’d had to clear my throat: “Uh, hey, guys, could you and Senator Biden just quickly look into the camera and . . . I know, I know, it won’t take long.”1
I’d given no end of confusing instructions: “I’m going to need you to take this mic off before you start speaking into your actual mic-mic up there, okay?” eliciting nary a word of complaint.
This time, though, he was firm, and so I sank back in my seat on the bus with a pastrami sandwich left over from our stop at the Deli Den in Fort Lauderdale. “It’s just that I don’t want to fake it,” he said. “Let’s just wait until I really do it naturally, okay?”
I nodded, and I got it. What I’d asked him to do was a big deal for him. “Senator, would you mind looking out the window for a minute so I can film it? The guys doing the thirty-minute commercial have been asking if I would shoot some out-the-window-thoughtful kind of stuff.”
It was a little inconvenient for me, but Obama’s reluctance to put on a show makes for good politics as well as good policy. Americans detest inauthenticity above all things, whether in a job interview at an investment bank or at the neighborhood saloon of a gold rush frontier town. And there’s a deep truth in that Head & Shoulders ad from the ’80s—you never get a second chance to make a first impression.
We Americans are hand shakers, huggers. When we greet one another, we meet as equals. We’re likely to use first names. There are no inscrutable titles or castes, and certainly no cap-doffing or bowing. We base our introductions on who we are and where we’re from, what we do, what we’re about to do, or maybe what we just did.
This frank and egalitarian manner of self-presentation dominates our cultural landscape, from the poetic boastings of Jack Johnson and Muhammad Ali (“I am the greatest, I said that even before I knew I was”) to the humble biographies of Bruce Springsteen and Loretta Lynn (“We were poor, but we had love”) to those who would be our presidents, be they from a log cabin or a town called Hope.
The first—and, I think, in many ways the hardest—step in running for president is the cold opening, the pitch, that initial handshake, done over and over again over the course of a campaign: My name is so-and-so and I’m running for president. How are you doing and what do you do? This is what I’ve seen, this is what I’ve done, and this is why you should consider getting to know me better.
These days, of course, many of these introductions are taking place on screens, and more than ever online (and not just on Match.com). In a remarkably short span of time, really just since 2008, it’s become standard practice for presidential candidates to announce their campaigns and introduce themselves to the American electorate on YouTube, in videos that, intentionally or not, reveal a good deal about who they are and what type of campaign they’ll be running.
My favorite from the run-up to the 2012 election was Jon Huntsman’s announcement video, which showed the former Utah governor (or a devilishly handsome stunt double) on a motorcycle, cruising past the gorgeous rock formations of Monument Valley while a semi-funny reference to his long-ago rock band Wizard scrolls across the screen. But they are now a staple, from the fake-handheld look of the first online appearance of candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton in 2008, who just wanted “to start a conversation,” to Mitt Romney’s out-of-the-package windbreaker on a hillside above the University of New Hampshire.
Interestingly, Obama for America’s reelection video didn’t show the president at all: it was a roundup of various supporters’ reasons for getting involved in the president’s campaign, followed by the words “It begins with us.” This approach made sense, since the sitting president of the United States doesn’t need an introduction; the goal was rather to relaunch a movement.
I think all of these intro videos are useful, revealing, and—for lack of a better word—true. Pretty much everything you need to know about the candidate you can deduce from a two-minute video. The Huntsman one speaks of a candidate who wants to be a little edgy, but is simply not suited to the more conservative elements of the Republican base. Romney: competent and unobjectionable, but also uninspired and uninspiring. Not comfortable in that windbreaker. (Also check out his brand-new NASCAR jacket at the Daytona 500; it’s become a habit of Giulianiesque proportions.)
I should say that I have more than a passing interest in how political videos work because I spent four years filming Barack Obama pretty much around the clock. As the first Official White House Videographer, I was sort of like President Obama’s wedding videographer if every day was a wedding with the same groom but a constantly rotating set of hysterical guests.
If there’s one thing I learned over those years, it’s that videos don’t lie—on the contrary, they are the most reliable gauge of truth we have.2 The basic narrative told in a shot is true, despite the ease with which some elements of motion picture can be manipulated. No one can deny the power of editing to influence a viewer. Way back in 1918, Soviet filmmaker Lev Kuleshov famously demonstrated that an audience would ascribe emotion to a neutral face based on the preceding shot, for example, a shot of a bowl of soup makes an expressionless actor look hungry. We’re talking basic stuff here. But the great big personalities who vie for the American presidency are hardly expressionless or neutral. Just look at the cutaways in the debates, when the candidates are supposed to be at their most controlled. A bowl of soup plus Michele Bachmann or Newt Gingrich is just a bowl of soup plus Michele Bachmann or Newt Gingrich.3
In our age of media supersaturation, videos have an ever more direct impact on how we judge and elect our politicians. This, at the end of the day, may be a very good thing. Given enough screen time, all candidates reveal who they really are. No matter how carefully scripted and choreographed their media appearances and stump speeches, no matter how skillfully edited their official videos, eventually—for better or worse—the camera will catch them out. It didn’t take long for Mitt Romney to announce that he was “running for office, for Pete’s sake” and that he “likes being able to fire people.” Or for Rick Perry to forget why he was running at all (“oops”). For many candidates, the video camera is a trap just waiting to spring open; for a rare few, it’s a golden ticket.
Let me repeat: the camera doesn’t lie. It may sound simplistic, but this is the chief reason I know, without a single precinct reporting, that Barack Obama will be reelected president of the United States on my thirty-seventh birthday, November 6, 2012. I know because I’ve seen the game tapes (figuratively speaking, of course; the White House has gone digital, like everyone else).
In fact, I’ve made a lot of these game tapes myself. I’ve filmed Barack Obama for thousands of hours, from a few months into his long-shot candidacy into the third year of his presidency. For four-plus years, I was responsible for capturing Obama’s every move on film: first with political objectives, then for history. We’d progressed from greasy spoons and VFW halls to the Chilean presidential palace (where the famous progressive rock band Los Jaivas performed their signature classic “Mamalluca”), and, well, the White House. All along the way, I’ve also filmed the less public moments that in previous administrations only a handful of people—the ones right there in the room—had the opportunity to witness.4
Some of the moments were small: the president throwing warm-up pitches deep inside Busch Stadium in St. Louis before the 2009 All-Star Game while a touchingly concerned Albert Pujols gave sage advice. “It’s a long way to the plate, Mr. President—throw it up!” Some of the moments were intensely affecting: POTUS (the president of the United States) comforting a grieving teenager whose father had died in the Joplin, Missouri, tornado two days earlier. And some were just plain scary: the then senator Obama’s sudden appearance in Nick’s Bar in Bloomington nearly inciting a riot among the college students far gone in their cups . . . at eleven in the morning. (I have to admit that at Nick’s the survival instincts kicked in and I put my camera down and just started pushing through the crowd.)
Throughout all these changes of scene, and the dramatic transition from campaigning to governing, there’s been one constant: Barack Obama. Over thousands of hours of filming him, not once did I spot Mr. Hyde offstage right. Republicans have repeatedly tried to paint Barack Obama as a scary outsider, but cameras have told a different story. Many Americans—myself and the electorate who showed up to the polls on November 4, 2008, included—recognize one of their own.
I certainly liked him as soon as he entered my radar. Though I’d been an interested American in 2004 when Obama made his famous convention speech, I wasn’t interested enough to take the TV off mute before the headlining act.5 (Watching the opening speakers was like watching whatever band was opening for the Flaming Lips who were opening for an actual band at Roseland in the mid-’90s.) I didn’t really start paying attention until late 2006, when he made a satirical announcement video that aired during Monday Night Football. In the video, after a typically grave buildup, he talks about the big decisions facing America, and then finally commits to—supporting the Bears. The spot finishes with him putting on his Bears cap and breaking into his easy laugh. And try as I might, I simply cannot imagine this year’s batch of Republican candidates—to say nothing of perennial non-runners like Sarah Palin—pulling off a fun spot like this; they simply don’t have the foundation.
The authenticity that had grabbed me is one of the keys to political success, a phenomenon many observers have remarked on but I can empirically confirm. My 24/7 footage of Obama showcased that authenticity, that relaxed self-possession, and allowed voters to see him as he really is and judge him accordingly. All I really did was hold the camera. Even so, many people have misunderstood my role, the first of its kind in Washington. I’ve been accused of turning the presidency into a reality TV show and of “mocking the free press” (this is a direct quote). I’ve been pegged as everything from the second coming of Leni Riefenstahl to a secret Pakistani militant tasked with doctoring images of a scar on the president’s head to hide where special agents slip the discs in. That’s right: the discs.
I try not to take these charges personally. No American president has had this type of videographer before, and I understand that people fear novelty, especially in a tradition-bound town like Washington. But there’s actually nothing at all novel about recording the president for posterity. From the dawn of our great republic, artists have been capturing the presidential character in every medium. Before film there was photography, and before photography there was paint.6 And with every technological advance, we get to know our leaders better. Since 1849, when James K. Polk’s administration was the first to make official use of photography, the camera has played a key role in shaping how we understand our politicians, especially our presidents. In 1895, not long after the film camera was invented, Grover Cleveland—the first president to have an entry in the Internet Movie Database (IMDb), incidentally—agreed to be filmed signing a bill into law in what became A Capital Courtship, a one-reeler that was quite popular in its day on the lyceum circuit.
Different presidents have had different relationships with cameras and the people who operate them, though it wasn’t until Lyndon B. Johnson that the president started appointing an official White House photographer, a position that comes with an unmatched level of access. Since LBJ, every president has had his own photographer—well, everyone except Jimmy Carter, who hated having his picture taken (and look how that worked out for him).
Motion pictures have had just as swift and deep an impact on the political landscape. From the moment Richard Nixon broke into a sweat on national TV during a 1960 debate with the debonair Kennedy, video has been central to the making and breaking of politicians, increasing our scrutiny of candidates, and stoking our appetite for intimate moments, especially from our president. This is because video leaves less to the imagination than even the most candid still photograph; whether consumed in a movie theater or on an iPhone, videos give us the sense that we’re seeing our leaders at their most authentic. With every technological advance, candidates have had to work harder to appear confident, relaxed, and, at the same time, presidential—quite the command performance. Now that there’s a high-res video camera lurking inside every smartphone at every fund-raiser, projecting that image is a 24/7 commitment.
Since the bar is so high and the cameras are always on, successful leaders’ public images and performances must be grounded in their actual characters and personalities, which had better be broadly appealing . . . or else. Obama’s relationship to the Internet is something like JFK’s relationship to television—the right personality at the right technological juncture. And while there’s no exact Nixon-Kennedy debate in the Obama narrative to mark the moment his triumph became all but inevitable, the personal appeal of both men played a big role in the success of their candidacies. I can say from my own experiences behind the camera that Obama is a dream documentary subject, able to create private space in public. It’s his naturalness, his comfort in his own skin that made a filmed presidency possible.
There were other factors at play, of course, namely, new technologies combined with a new public appetite for history in real time. Just as FDR was not the first POTUS to use radio (that would be Woodrow Wilson) and Kennedy was not the first POTUS on TV (Truman and Eisenhower had made frequent appearances), Obama was not the first POTUS to use the Internet (that would be Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush maintained the practice). Obama did, however, have the broadest understanding of the Internet’s possibilities and of his audience. The audience itself was just getting to know Internet video when Obama began campaigning; strange as it may seem today, YouTube has only been around since 2005, not exactly the beginning of human history. The precipitate rise of Internet video has been helped along by our incredible shrinking cameras, which, as they keep getting smaller, find their way into more and more hands and more and more places, including sewer pipes with deposed Libyan dictators. The Internet, or more accurately broadband, has given people the ability to reflect on events—that is, to make history out of them—while they’re still going on. The Battle for Tripoli was being memorialized on Wikipedia even as the crack of sniper rifles sounded through the city.
Authorship is also important, and that’s where I come in. Although none of what I, or other media innovators of the last election cycle, have accomplished would have been possible without Barack Obama, I don’t want to sell myself too short. My personality was also a good match for my job, and for this particular president. I’m not a noodge, but I’m also not a silent observer: I’m a little neurotic and a lot chatty, often interjecting my opinions from behind the camera, a tendency that I think helped me build trust with both my subject and my audience. So much of political media is anonymous, institutional, and corporate, which provides a good veil for the all-out nastiness that often prevails in political advertising today. I hope I helped inject doses of humanity and humor into that toxic environment.7
Yes, I realize how naive my “the truth shines through!” brand of cinematic optimism sounds. Let me be the first to admit that negative campaigning works. Just look at how the Romney PACs (political action committees) destroyed Newt Gingrich in Iowa and Florida in the fall of 2011; Newt’s lack of defense against the barrage of negative ads doomed him just as surely as his three wives and Tiffany’s debts, to say nothing of his relationship with Freddie Mac and advocacy of a permanent lunar colony.8 But curiously enough, when Gingrich had the money, courtesy of Sheldon Adelson, to crank out negative ads of his own and level the playing field, he won his first state in South Carolina.
But, of course, all that remains is scorched earth. A negative ad cuts both ways, tainting its instigator as much as its intended victim, as Romney’s plummeting numbers in the wake of his negative-ad carpet bombing of his opponents demonstrated. And although, courtesy of Citizens United, we’re spending more and more money on negative ads, the needle just isn’t moving as much as it used to (or rather, it snaps back so quickly that the movement has no meaning). The problem is not just diminishing returns, although that’s certainly part of it; it’s scratching the audience’s collective brain raw and senseless. Negative ads are like MSG: tasty and addictive, definitely, but also toxic, a poison that dulls our taste buds and deadens our sensitivities. That’s the main reason I think the debates took on such unprecedented importance in the GOP primaries and why so many voters cited them as their main influence in determining how to pull the lever: What other opportunity did anyone have to evaluate the candidates as human beings?
Though I didn’t begin with this goal, I like to think that the political filmmaking I did during the 2008 election and Obama’s first term has served as something of an antidote to all the rampant negativity out there. The world certainly seems to be ready for it. After all, the most watched political video of 2011 wasn’t Rick Perry’s hateful (and hated) “Strong” ad, or even the hilarious star turn by Herman Cain’s smoking campaign manager.9 It was an impassioned defense of gay marriage given in an Iowa courtroom by a young man named Zach Wahls, who has two mothers and no discernible emotional scars. I hope the same can be said about the rest of us after being force-fed metric crap tons of MSG for so many months on end.
So just to let everyone know, the following pages won’t be about what my lousy childhood was like or what the president eats for breakfast. I’m not going to complain about getting thrown out of Indian Parliament by my belt, or getting trapped in the White House library bathroom while POTUS conducted a forty-minute YouTube town hall with Steve Grove on the other side of the door. (Curse you, noisy automatic toilets!) I’d rather explore the complex interplay of politics and media, and art and government, and audio and video, in the new millennium, and discuss what I’ve learned as the first-ever cameraman to train his lens on a president around the clock.
1 This was, of course, not as bad as that November night in Grant Park, mere seconds before the just-elected next president of the United States was about to go onstage for his victory speech: “Congratulations, sir! Now, if you could just stand there, I already have the camera in focus. We can knock this thing out in two takes, get you right out there!”
2 Jean-Luc Godard said that “cinema is a truth twenty-four times a second.” Now that I’ve gotten that out of the way, I swear I won’t mention him again.
3 And the real tragedy here is that Newt didn’t even know what flavor soup he was. In his announcement video, the former Speaker stands way too close to the camera and reads out a speech against what looks like a Sears Portrait Studio backdrop. But the thing that Republican voters like about Newt, and the reason they gave him three comebacks and a handful of states despite obvious and obviously fatal flaws, is his anger. Even I like Newt’s anger. But his intro video, and in fact most of his campaign videos, were generic to the point of eccentricity, and just a real letdown for a guy with his own production company.
4 As opposed to the hundreds of well-dressed midde-aged Chileans who rocked out to “Mamalluca.”
5 I finally got to see him make that same speech at the rehearsal for his acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention in Denver, where he delivered it to check the sound systems without revealing the text of the next night’s address.
6 A highlight of the West Wing Tour that staffers are invariably obliged to give friends and family is the famous picture of George Washington crossing the Delaware: “I’d like to draw your attention to six historical inaccuracies in this painting. First, George Washington hated water and would definitely have been sitting down. . . .”
7 “You’re just spitting in the wind, Arun,” a Secret Service agent assigned to the campaign told me once as I tried to explain to some local police that I was allowed to walk behind the senator. This advice applies here.
8 God, I just love Newt so much, I can’t help it, I really do.
9 At NYU, my professor Paul Thompson always complained about American movies where people smoked wrong, “like they’ve never smoked a day in their lives.”
Copyright © 2012 by Arun Chaudhary