Left, Right & Center
Jewish World Review / January 8, 1998 / 10 Tevet, 5758
First couple has cake, eats cake
WASHINGTON -- THE PHOTOGRAPH is of a couple dancing on a beach. They are wearing bathing suits. In the background, there is a rock and some cactus.
The two people are dancing so close, their bodies touch. The most compelling thing about the photograph, however, is how the woman's head is tilted up to look lovingly into the eyes of the man and how a small, affectionate smile plays upon the man's lips as he looks down at her.
The man is 51, and the woman is 50, and while they are both attractive, neither would claim to be a hardbody. They look like a normal couple, dancing in the daylight on a beach and enjoying each other's company. Whether or not they would like to be photographed in their bathing suits on that beach and have that photograph distributed around the world is another question.
The photo captions inform us, unnecessarily, that the dancing couple is Bill and Hillary Clinton, photographed while on vacation in St. Thomas a few days ago. Photographers and a TV crew took the pictures from about 100 yards away, without the permission of the White House. The picture ran in newspapers all over the planet on Monday -- the Los Angeles Times ran it in full color on the front page -- and the White House instantly announced that the first couple's privacy had been invaded.
"We stupidly assumed they'd be granted some privacy," deputy White House press secretary Joe Lockhart fumed.
Mike McCurry, the presidential spokesman, informed the press that he was "upset" and threatened to make the presidential couple less available for photographs in the future.
The same day, President Clinton was asked by a reporter if he felt his privacy had been invaded by the picture, and he responded, "Yes."
When asked where the press should draw the line, Clinton wisely answered "that's why we have a First Amendment; you get to decide the answer..."
But Clinton also said: "Actually, I liked it (the picture) quite a lot. But I didn't think I was being photographed."
Several issues are raised here: Do the president and the first lady have any rights of privacy? They are public figures, but can anyone be constantly on display, unable to leave his or her house without being photographed? Do public figures have to become prisoners of their homes? Would anyone like to ask Princess Di that question? Oh, that's right, we can't ask her anything anymore.
But wait a second. No White House in history has so relentlessly shaped a public image the way the Clinton White House has. A large press staff works with almost maniacal energy to present warm, human glimpses of the president and the first lady. Warm human glimpses are what it takes to stay popular in America today. So is it fair for the Clintons to manipulate public opinion through the use of their own, sanctioned photographs but then turn around and complain when unsanctioned photographs are taken? Must photographers be the captives of the White House?
And what is so wrong with the picture, anyway? Isn't a picture of Bill Clinton lovingly holding his wife good news for the White House, especially with the Paula Jones trial scheduled to begin in just four months? Isn't it possible that the first couple "vamped" for the photographers just to create such a loving picture?
"Would that we were that bright," Mike McCurry scoffed Monday.
But the White House press staff is that bright when it comes to pictures. The president does not step foot outside the Oval Office without a whole team of press aides planning what each picture of him will look like in print and on the air.
So I called a source who has vast knowledge of the White House publicity operation and asked him if the White House was really upset with the picture.
"Naw," he said. "It was a great picture."
So why did the White House complain about an invasion of privacy? I asked.
"This is a post-Diana world," the source said. "It's good to complain about that, and it's good to complain about the press. It makes the public more on your side. But a picture of the two of them dancing? You can't lose with a picture like that."
And so the White House didn't lose. It got a good picture, and it got to complain about the press, too.
Bill and Hillary got to waltz with each other, and their press staff got to tap-dance on the media.
1/6/98: PO'ed: a suspected druggie jumps through the employment hoops