They call it “optics.”
The White House has a team of people – you taxpayers foot the bill, of course – that spends its days thinking of the best way to portray the president in the most favorable light.
(“Maybe we should snap him riding a bike in Hawaii?” “Let’s snap him playing hoops!” “His 122nd round of golf? No cameras please.”)
But sometimes, they snooze. Like last week, when The Team let the president step out – for the cameras – at the Door of No Return.
Now, President George W. Bush stood at the very same spot in 2003, but at a different place entirely – stunning party pickups in the 2002 midterms, majority in the House and Senate, headed to re- election, on the top of the world. It was a picture, nothing more.
Thursday, though, was some very bad “optics.” President Obama, standing alone, morose, looking down, sullen, mock contemplative, within the Door of No Return. Below him, rust-stained cinder blocks, craggy rocks of a shallow port, the Atlantic Ocean.
At another time, meaningless. But at this precise moment, a few frames that encapsulate the president, now, and his plight in millions of ways – far beyond the few million megapixels.
First, the scene wasn’t what it seemed. While the Huffington Post called it “very powerful moment” – the president standing at a doorway in Senegal from which Africans were said to have been shipped across the ocean into American slavery – it was not that at all.
He was, in fact, standing at a garbage chute.
“Pictures on Thursday,” The Telegraph newspaper reported, “showed Mr. Obama standing with his wife Michelle at Goree’s so-called Door of No Return, a dark passageway from where the fort’s human cargo is said to have been loaded via gangplanks onto ships. However, despite the claims that millions of slaves passed through the door, its most likely use is now thought to have been for disposing of rubbish. Likewise, the waters it overlooks are too rocky and shallow for a slave ship to have used it as a loading bay.”
So, like so many things with the president, all was not as it seemed. “There are literally no historians who believe the Slave House is what they’re claiming it to be, or that believe Goree was statistically significant in terms of the slave trade,” said Ralph Austen, a professor at the University of Chicago.