Of optics, appearances and excuses

Whatever happened to concern about appearances? It has been subsumed in the political cliché “optics.” Don’t be a language slob. Leave “optics” to optometrists and opticians. Address appearances.

I wish the late William Safire were here to do so. Five years ago, in his last column on language for the Times, Safire observed: “‘Optics’ is hot, rivaling content.” Safire quoted his sagacious reader Tom Short: “Anytime I hear this word used in any context outside of graphic arts, my eye doctor’s office or the field of astronomy, my B.S. detector goes into high alert.” (Ben Zimmer took the baton from Safire the following year in “Optics.”)

Despite his vaunted literary flair, President Obama is a man who thinks in clichés, almost invariably of the left-wing variety. In his interview with Chuck Todd on Meet the Press yesterday, Obama recurred to “optics” in his discussion of his fist-bumping golf round in the minutes after his statement on the beheading of James Foley:

CHUCK TODD: I got to ask, so– so during that vacation, you made the statement on Foley. You went and golfed. Do you– do you want that back?

PRESIDENT OBAMA: You know, it is always a challenge when you’re supposed to be on vacation. Because you’re followed everywhere. And part of what I’d love is a vacation from–

CHUCK TODD: Yeah, you want to–

PRESIDENT OBAMA: –the– the press and– and– because–

CHUCK TODD: I promise you, 2 1/2 years, I think that happens.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: Because the possibility of a jarring contrast given the world’s news, is always– there’s always going to be some tough news somewhere — is going to be there. But there’s no doubt that– after having talked to the families, where it was hard for me to hold back tears listening to the pain that they were going through, after the statement that I made, that you know, I should’ve anticipated the optics.

You know, that’s part of the job. And you know, I think everybody who knows me, including, I suspect, the press, understands that that you know, you take this stuff in. And– it– it’s serious business. And– and you care about it deeply.

But part of this job is also the theatre of it. A part of it is, you know, how are you, how, how are you, well, it’s not something that– that always comes naturally to me. But it matters. And I’m mindful of that. So the important thing is, in addition to that, is am I getting the policies right? Am I protecting the American people? Am I doing what’s necessary?

And when it comes to the policies, when it comes to the actions we’ve taken, I have no higher priority than keeping the American people safe. I think I’ve done a very good job during the course of these last, close to six years, doing so. And I intend to continue to meet that responsibility or meet that duty, for as long as I have the privilege of holding this office.

Obama gives us the superficially sophisticated observation about “the possibility of a jarring contrast given the world’s news.” The contrast is between the frivolous and the serious. What is to be done? “[T]here’s always going to be some tough news somewhere.” Life is a bitch.

According to Obama, the problem was “optics,” i.e., appearances. Despite appearances, he was nearly choked up about the beheading of James Foley. He almost shed tears when talking to Foley’s parents.

After speaking with Foley’s parents and making his statement, Obama immediately headed for the golf course. The Daily Mail published photographs from his post-almost-cried golf round here. Below is a fist-bump for the ages. If Obama almost choked up when speaking to Foley’s parents, he recovered quickly.

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Obama pleads that he is deficient in the theater of the presidency. Yet he is all theater, all the time, and has been since his improbable declaration of candidacy in Springfield back in 2007. John fills in the details here.

Finally, he whines that he can’t get away from the press. Nobody knows the troubles he’s seen, even though he has rightly joked that the media are a gloried adjunct of his administration.

In this case, the photographs suggest that Obama wasn’t all that choked up about the beheading of James Foley. They document that whatever emotion he felt, if any, dissipated very quickly. On that day, the photographs belied the theater. You might conclude that Obama is something of a phony on a matter of great concern to ordinary Americans. Thus Obama’s irritation.

One is struck both by the falsity and the petulance of Obama’s comments. I think Obama lies even to himself.

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