Shortly after he angrily denounced the obscene beheading of freelance journalist James Foley by a member of the terrorist Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, a smiling President Barack Obama was photographed playing golf. And so it started — just like clockwork.
Obama’s not really working … He’s ignoring the country’s crises … He doesn’t really care about Foley … The optics are bad.
In reality, everyone knows the expressions of outrage over Obama’s golf and smile were part of an ongoing media and political ballet. It’s part of a dance with highly predictable moves, even though some ostensibly go ballistic if it’s called precisely what it is.
It brings to mind two old jokes about ballet. A guy goes to a ballet for the first time. His friend asks him what he thought of it. “It was OK. But why don’t they just get taller girls?” The second one: “When I went to Moscow I saw the ballet.” “Bolshoi?” “Naw, I’m not kidding ya …”
You watch this ballet and wonder: why don’t people just call this what it is? A ballet.
Fox News filled lots of air time mentioning Obama’s golf, reaching its crescendo with a suggestion by The Five co-host Greg Gutfeld, who won the Self Absorption Award of 2014: “Maybe he was not planning on golfing after that grim press conference, but chose to because some expressed concern he would,” Gutfeld said. “Does Obama golf because [Fox News] says not to? Does he do everything because FNC says not to?”
Rush Limbaugh replayed his comment from 2008 when he had warned listeners that Obama was “cold” and “devoid of passion” and like a “programmed robot.”
At least the conservative site Protein Wisdom put its views in clever knock-knock joke form about the group that butchered Foley: “‘Knock knock, Mr. President.’ ‘Who’s there?’ ‘ISIS. Or ISIL. Your choice.’ ‘ISIS or ISIL who?’”
The New York Times’ Maureen Dowd did an excruciatingly trite take-off column having Obama do the Gettysburg Address as “The Golf Address.”
Forbes’ ‘Rick Ungar, who usually supports Obama, said Obama failed to grasp America’s collective pain. From the New York Daily News to The Hill, publications ran stories seemingly shocked about Obama playing golf after making the announcement. Buzzfeed ran seven photos of Obama playing golf. The Week reported that Democrats felt Obama was “tone deaf” when he went to play golf. The White House countered that Obama played golf to clear his head.
All Presidents have had their leisure activities and didn’t pursue them because they had nothing to do or weren’t working. Teddy Roosevelt rode horses, wrestled and boxed in the White House. JFK sailed. Ronald Reagan chopped wood. Dwight Eisenhower’s golfing gave Bob Hope material for years. Yes, George W. Bush golfed.
The people going after Obama on golf know full well he wasn’t halting his work and cared about Foley. They get political donations, readers, viewers and can hurt partisans on the other side if it’s framed as a big deal.
There is a valid news story in negative reactions to him playing golf, but it got lost in the gleeful political, snark and derision fests.
Our politics is highly toxic and this underscores no matter how serious a subject, Americans can’t focus on unifying on a big issue. The fun-and-games narrative itself becomes “the ball” and obscures or belittles serious policy issues (like Obama’s comments’ actual content).
The bulk of Americans would not accuse any President of not doing his job or caring if he played after making a grim announcement. But many Americans now take their cues (and many opinions) from what their favorite ideological talker or writer says or writes, or by a viewpoint communicated to them in a news story.
You might now suggest that all of this will change because the partisanship and follow-the-narrative media stories are so excruciatingly predictable. And to that I say: Bolshoi.
Email Joe Gandelman at firstname.lastname@example.org.