Ever since Theodore Roosevelt convened the first proto-press conferences, with reporters huddling to hear him sound off during his afternoon shave, the White House communications apparatus has inexorably expanded. Presidents now confer with a swarm of press secretaries, speechwriters, pollsters and virtually every species of media consultant that Marshall McLuhan might have imagined. One of Barack Obama’s contributions has been the creation of the post of White House videographer, a job first held by an indie filmmaker and political junkie named Arun Chaudhary. He has now written a memoir.
“First Cameraman” hasn’t generated the anticipation of a tell-all from a recently departed chief of staff, but its singular, quirky take on Obama’s brief career adds a smidgen of useful information to the historical record. And it serves up, simultaneously, a smattering of laughs, glimpses of the scutwork that goes into White House image-craft, and insights into the modern media presidency. What the book lacks in newsy disclosures it makes up for with freshness and wit.
The self-deprecating Chaudhary personifies the stereotype of the young slackers of Obama’s 2008 campaign (or at least the fantasy version): young, idealistic, highly educated and inexperienced in politics — rather like Obama himself. The journey starts with our hero, a New York University film school grad, looking to break into politics. It follows him as he winds up, through a friend and a bit of luck, as a new-media factotum for the campaign — replete with tales of rental cars abandoned in the snow and a first-time, harrowing encounter with Miracle Whip. And it leads ultimately to his august, or at least august-sounding, role as presidential cameraman, videotaping what used to be the weekly radio address and producing a regular online news roundup called “West Wing Week.”
Chaudhary is a companionable guide to the behind-the-scenes new media operation. His style is relentlessly chatty and smart-alecky, which is not exactly the same thing as funny. But if his perpetual wisecracking gives the book a lighthearted air, Chaudhary is after more than capturing the absurdity of his own cluelessness: He wants to shed light on the loopy nature of reality in today’s circus politics, in which the boundaries between the natural and the staged are so fluid as to defy delineation. His purported thesis is that “videos don’t lie” but, on the contrary, “are the most reliable gauge of truth we have” in politics. This is a highly dubious claim, which Chaudhary himself contradicts pages later when he writes, more reasonably, “With every technological advance, candidates have had to work harder to appear confident, relaxed, and at the same time presidential.” Sincerity is everything, George Burns supposedly said; if you can fake that, you’ve got it made.
Chaudhary insists, no doubt sincerely, that his productions weren’t propaganda, that they didn’t mislead or manipulate. But as the film-school grad surely knows, no matter how factual and mundane he might make his videos, he’s still engaged in a process of interpretation — recording and selecting and editing the footage he deems worthy. His choices would inevitably diverge from a journalist’s. In any of these behind-the-scenes videos, for example, has he shown Obama smoking?
That problem points to the chief disappointment of the book: Obama’s not in it enough. Which is too bad, because when Chaudhary does showcase Obama, the effect is usually winning. His vignettes often reveal the president’s wry sense of humor: In one instance, he laughs while trying to explain to his daughter Malia that “Bruce Springsteen is way more famous than the Jonas Brothers.” The book would have benefited not only from more of these unstaged, unscripted peeks at Obama’s playful side, but also incidents where he was angry, nasty, anxious or otherwise off-message.
But Chaudhary, despite having left the White House, is too loyal and decent to dish dirt — a reticence that speaks well to his character but in the end confines his book. “First Cameraman” is a lively and smart behind-the-scenes romp through one man’s experience in political image-making, but the portrait of the president that emerges might strike the reader as, ironically, just a bit too carefully packaged.
Greenberg is a professor of history and of journalism and media studies at Rutgers University.
Documenting the Obama Presidency in Real Time
By Arun Chaudhary
Times. 306 pp. $30